When the bell rings for school dismissal today, mixed in with homework assignments will be a message of doom for the county's school system if a proposal for a tax cap on county spending is approved.
Sixty-five thousand students will serve as messengers, delivering School Superintendent Larry L. Lorton's two-page letter predicting that approval of the measure will result in increased class sizes, cuts to extracurricular activities and a decline in the overall quality of education.
Proponents of the measure, which would limit property tax revenue growth to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, called Lorton's actions questionable.
Brendan Greeley, a spokesman for Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government, the group spearheading the tax cap, calls it "fear tactics."
"We resent him doing this through kids," said Greeley, who has a son at Annapolis Senior. "I'd call it unethical."
AATRG president Robert Schaeffer questioned the use of county time and money to send the letters to parents.
"It's the lowest tactic," Schaeffer said. "Whose money did I have when I went out and did grass-roots campaigning? I did it with volunteers. Did he write it, type it, run it off with his own hands? Or did he use county employees and time to do it?"
While Schaeffer and Greeley said a tax cap would mean only a 1.3 percent cut to the current budget, Lorton, the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County and representatives from the county budget office say cuts -- possibly large ones -- to the education budget are inevitable.
"I applaud him (Lorton) for doing it," TAAAC executive director Charles LoCascio said. "He's the superintendent and has the responsibility to make people aware.
"TAAAC's position is that it will have a devastating effect on education. What will happen when schools are predicting 9,000 additional students between the next five to seven years, and the county projects 15,000 new homes in the western and southern parts of the county? There will not be funds available to provide for what this growth is going to demand."
There is confusion about the actual impact of the tax cap -- the AATRG interpretation says savings will be considerable, while the county Office of Law says the average taxpayer will save about $10 next year. County Budget Officer Marita Brown said, however, it is certain that education will be affected.
"The education budget makes up over half of the total budget," Brown said. "It is unrealistic to assume there will be no cuts, but the magnitude will have to be determined by the next county executive."
In the letter, Lorton points out 22 areas in the education budget that may have to be cut if the measure is approved, including summer school and special education summer programs; transportation for kindergarten and vocational education shuttle buses; 40 resource teachers to support school improvement; extracurricular activities; adult education and evening high school; activity buses, and ninth- and 10th-grade vocational education In addition, Lorton said programs such as ISIS, the integrated computer system tying together the central office and the 121 county schools, could be jeopardized.
The letter claimed new state mandates, including a longer school year, may also be put in jeopardy. Plans for making all county high schools grades 9-12 and achieving program equity in all schools would all be placed in danger.
"Make no mistake," Lorton wrote. "Question D, if approved, will hurt children. Not many budget cuts can be made without reaching into the classroom. Every similar tax referendum from California to Massachusetts and Prince George's and Talbot counties in Maryland has damaged schools."
County police officers are also pledging support for Lorton's message and are distributing fliers against the tax cap.