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Will Baltimore County pay for better schools?

Conventional wisdom in Baltimore County is that you don’t win public office by promising to raise taxes, so it’s not too surprising that the Democratic and Republican candidates running for county executive this year aren’t going there even as they pledge to make county schools better. In the case of Johnny Olszewski Jr., the Democrat and former two-term delegate, it’s an especially glaring contradiction given the amount of investment in public education he’s endorsed, from $2 billion in school construction to smaller class sizes and a 20 percent increase in teacher pay. His Republican opponent, Al Redmer Jr. is not exactly a slouch in that department either, given his support of pre-K education (at least conceptually) and a new Lansdowne High School.

Yet Baltimore County voters may find this situation frustrating. Unless something changes, Baltimore County is at or near its capacity for both capital borrowing and operating support for schools. But spending more money to either replace or renovate aging schools has become a popular cause not just in Lansdowne but with Towson and Dulaney high schools getting strong support as well. Just ask parents of students who missed school because of the recent heatwave. Second, the state appears poised to help Baltimore County (and every other Maryland subdivision) pay for better schools. The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (also known as the Kirwan Commission) has already given preliminary recommendations for expanded pre-K and higher teacher salaries and more. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous isn’t shy about proposing new or increased taxes to pay for his education promises, and even Gov. Larry Hogan supports dedicating to education much of the expected windfall in state income tax revenues that will come as a result of the federal tax reform and new revenues from internet sales taxes.

So what does it take to convince those running for public office in 2018 to accept that voters are willing to pay more in taxes with the usual “ifs” attached (if it goes to public education and not other government functions, if there is real accountability, if it’s spent judiciously and not wastefully, etc.)? In other states, local school boards often have the authority to set property taxes and put the question of expanded spending to voters. The closest Baltimore County voters get to such a referendum is an up or down vote on a $335.5 million capital bond issue and the so-called “lock box” statewide vote to ensure future casino revenues go to schools.

Neither provides a real referendum on investing in county schools, but they do come close. By supporting Question 1, voters signal that they expect any increase in gambling revenue to go to education — period. By approving Question G, they are endorsing a big boost in school construction on the county level — from about one-third of county borrowing in 2004 (when it totaled $78 million) to more than two-thirds of borrowing now. Despite all the criticism about inadequate air conditioning coming from Annapolis, that’s a quadrupling of spending on school buildings.

Still, there are likely to be county residents who think they can get better schools without personal sacrifice. And it’s not their fault. For most of three decades, that’s the line that elected officials have handed them. It’s why the county’s property tax rate and its piggyback income tax rate haven’t budged in 29 and 24 years, respectively. But merely eliminating waste or handing out pink slips to administrative staff won’t build $125 million high schools. Even the goal of certain gadfly school board members — to stop providing free laptop computers to students — would only save an estimated $41 million a year in lease payments, or roughly the same amount school employee salary and benefits costs increase each year. That’s not to mention the problems that would arise by short-circuiting a promising program around which the curriculum is now designed and that is especially helpful to low-income families that can’t afford such devices on their own.

So would voters rise up in mass protests if their next county executive commits to raising their taxes? At the very least, the county’s failure to tap its tax base for so many years is likely to be held against it when it’s time to divvy up Kirwan Commission funding. Here’s one possible indicator of the electorate’s mood: This summer, the county increased the fees assessed property owners each year to help pay for water and sewer infrastructure by a whopping 13.9 percent with barely a peep of protest. If county residents were unhappy about it, they’ve kept it to themselves. Perhaps we’ve gotten to the point where voters are less likely to protest a judicious increase in county taxes than the county’s failure to take this opportunity to upgrade school performance and not just classroom air conditioning.

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