Raise a ruckus for Baltimore County schools

Our view: The political gloves are going to have to come off in Towson if public schools are to be adequately funded next year

For as long as most people can remember, finalizing a school system budget in Baltimore County has followed a predictable path. The school system defined its needs, the county executive determined how much the county could afford without raising the property tax or piggyback income tax rates, and the superintendent and school board quietly dialed down their request to comply. The County Council may make a trim here or there to demonstrate it was paying attention, but then that would be that. It was a formula for making sure the county executive and council never faced the awkward task of having to do the cutting (or, perish the thought, raise taxes) and thus political harmony was maintained.

All that has changed, particularly with a reconstituted Baltimore County Board of Education on which a majority of members are now elected by voters. Like the county executive, they must answer to those who put them in office. And lo and behold, people who care about the future of the school system don’t want to see draconian cuts in education spending, like those in the most recent version of the budget which would deny pay raises for teachers and force larger class sizes. At last week’s school board meeting, there wasn’t really any doubt about the will of the people — Baltimore County residents want the school system to be adequately funded, cost-of-living pay raises and step increases, teaching positions and all.

That means a showdown is likely coming. If the school board endorses Interim Superintendent Verletta White’s original $1.65 billion operating budget — as parents, teachers and other stakeholders clearly want — then it will be left to County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and the County Council to either make the $86 million in budget cuts required to meet the system’s Plan B budget or propose raising taxes. And given the county’s history (and decades of flat tax rates), it’s going to get messy in Towson. It will take every angry parent who protested last week, along with any who show up at this Tuesday’s board work session and public hearing and for the final vote on Feb. 19, to push for adequate funding.

They won’t be unarmed. For one thing, they’ll have the knowledge that merely abandoning STAT — the county’s controversial student laptop program — won’t balance the budget. As the school system’s budget experts have demonstrated, having more students share the devices in the younger grades can save some money (going to from a 1-to-1 ratio to 2-to-1 has already saved BCPS about $15 million), but going further produces little savings. The problem? Chiefly that computers have to be replaced with textbooks and curriculum, which can be costly, too. For another thing, they’ll have the results of a much-anticipated outside audit, the preliminary results of which, according to insiders, give the school system a largely clean financial bill of health. (That’s no small reassurance given the Dallas Dance perjury and corruption case.)

In other words, if there’s no rampant waste, fraud and abuse, if cutting the fiscal 2020 budget means hurting classroom instruction, and if the future of STAT is relatively meaningless to school finances, what option does the county have but to choose between setting a tax rate that supports high-achieving schools and the crummy alternative of saving taxpayers a few extra dollars each month and letting the quality of public education slide after years of inadequate funding? That’s the real choice facing all involved, and while it may seem like an easy call, Baltimore County politicians are famous for avoiding that particular hard choice.

And make no mistake there will be plenty of individuals trying to muddy the waters. There will be those who care more about killing STAT than about preserving classroom instruction. And others who will refuse to believe that the school board can’t simply cut elsewhere, like paring senior staff — never mind that the superintendent has all of 40 top-level “executives” supervising a system with 18,000 employees. Parents and teachers are going to have to be vocal in their call for a new source of funding — make that loud and shrill and angry. And that campaign might start with the school board whose members talk a big game about transparency but have not released the draft audit (the most damning finding, sources say, is a pattern of overdue financial disclosure forms, with school board members among the worst offenders). Times have changed in Baltimore County, and now it’s up to those who long for higher quality schools to fight for them.

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