Talks lack harsh words


Anger and accusations have long accompanied Howard County's annual struggle between school and county officials over how much to spend on education.

"Your skin is never really tough enough to hear 'You don't care about the kids,'" County Executive James N. Robey told a group of parents last year.

Events have taken a different course this spring.

Despite Robey's decision to slice $5 million from the school board's request for next year - not to mention a nearly $2 million shortfall in hoped-for state funds - the rhetoric of combat is missing.

While school officials bemoan their unfunded requests, they comment quietly about being cooperative instead of sowing fear and panic among the parents of the county's 43,000 students.

"Obviously, I'm very happy," Robey said of the helpful approach.

The County Council will make a final decision on school spending this month after its annual public hearing on education Saturday. Political storms could be ahead, but the dialogue has been sunny.

"You do far better if you can work together. I just believe there's a lot more to be gained by working cooperatively," said council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

The apparent key to the change is first-year Superintendent John O. O'Rourke, who replaced 16-year school chief Michael E. Hickey in July.

"I honestly can't speak about the past," said O'Rourke.

"I'm brand new to this process and brand new to the county. We're dealing with a group of people [Robey and the County Council] acting in good faith," he said, explaining his straightforward, nonconfrontational approach and his list of proposed cuts that could amount to $10 million.

"I thought [the list of cuts] was fascinating. We've never had that kind of reaction before," said Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a two-term West Columbia Democrat.

Councilmen Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, and C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat, said they haven't been lobbied by the public or board members to restore money to the school budget.

"No question, John O'Rourke has taken a different path," Kittleman said.

"I like his approach," Gray said of O'Rourke's belief that if Howard's schools are good, they still have "a long way to go."

School board members appear to be taking their cue from O'Rourke.

"We're going to be cooperative and work with the county," said school board Chairwoman Jane B. Schuchardt. "The county has shown us some favors, getting more funding for [renovations] at Atholton and Dasher Green [elementaries]. There's a lot of give and take between the board and the county."

Others seem to agree.

"I don't think there's a need for contention. I think we need to work together for the benefit of the children," said Mary Jo Neill, president of the county's PTA Council.

"We had a terrible relationship with the community," said board member Laura Waters. Having a cooperative one is much healthier, she said.

Sandra H. French, board chairwoman last year, said she won't urge the public to press the County Council to restore the money Robey didn't provide. "Am I going to work hard on the County Council? Personally, no. They have a very difficult job, and they'll give us what they can," she said.

O'Rourke, French and other school officials would like what the $5 million could have bought, starting with a $338,000 integrated management system designed to help lower-achieving schools close the gap with top performers.

"That is my particular concern," said board member Patricia Gordon. Virginia Charles and French agreed, saying the goal-oriented system for guiding schools seemed the best bet for narrowing the achievement gap.

Lorsung wondered whether the climate of the school budget debate might be more the result of economic cycles than of personal styles. Conflict, she said, seemed to come with the recession of a decade ago; earlier, prosperity bred friendly relations.

Though this year has been peaceful, some observers say, that doesn't mean things can't change.

"I think it's very early in the process," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

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