Will The School Board Rise To Its Task?

THE OBSERVER

January 27, 1991|By Mark Guidera

One of the more interesting skirmishes county taxpayers should pay close attention to this winter will be the tug-of-war over the school board budget for next fall.

How the battle is waged and exactly what compromises are made, and more importantly who makes the compromises (code language for cuts), could have a lasting effect on how school board budgets are cast until at least the next local elections in 1994.

In short, who will run the show?

Will it be the new county executive? The new council?

Or, will the school board rise up from the lethargy it has displayed for the past four or five years when handed the task of scrutinizing the proposed school budget?

Members have been more inclined to wield the proverbial rubber stamp and with aflourishing wave of the flag, thwack! . . . Approved!

Tomorrow night when the school board convenes a public work session to go over the proposed 1991-1992 school budget with county School SuperintendentRay R. Keech we may get a glimpse of who will be in the driver's seat.

If the school board does not do its job this winter and make serious cuts in the proposed budget by Keech, there should be a movement for legislation requiring the county school board to be elected.

For now they are appointed. Hardly a taxpayer-sensitive group.

This year, times have changed. Let's hope the school board is tuned in.

County taxpayers, some stung by the recent freeze by the county executive on favored projects like a hotel for cats and dogs the former council (regrettably) approved $500,000 to build, are in no mood for a school system spending the limit.

And, it's crystal clear today that a school board budget asking for a 21 percent increase won't get a warm reception if it lands in front of a new council that, if their election rhetoric holds true, will be fiscally conservative and has been warned by County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann to prepare for austere financial times.

Even in good times, Keech's proposed budget is excessive.

He has submitted a budget to the school board asking for $26 million more than last year's $127 million. That's almosta 21 percent increase.

The county provides the lion's share of the school budget -- about 55 percent -- so you know who will have to pick up most of the school budget increase if the haggling draws closeto budget passage time in April and we get into a tug of nerves likelast year.

The proposed school budget has the unfortunate effect of causing one to wonder if academics are removed from the realities of life in the cold, real world.

That cold world is a state facinga deficit and a county facing flagging revenues now that the housing construction boom has ended and the governor has said don't plan onmy helping much with the bills this year.

About 7 percentage points of that proposed increase would be used to pay for hiring about 98teachers aimed at reducing class sizes in some of the county's elementary schools.

Keech and school board President Richard Molinaro have said that the top priority in this school budget is to pay for hiring those teachers so class sizes in the elementary schools can be brought down to reasonable levels -- around 24 kids a classroom.

Insome classes today there are more than 30 pupils.

No one would argue that that is too many kids in one class. The best thing a child can be expected to learn in a class that size is when to duck.

So there is no question that the school board needs to hire more

teachersin 1991.

The question is: What can be cut from the Keech proposalthis winter without sacrificing a decent education for students?

Compromises must be made. And the school board must make them.

Should the board and Keech continue to state that the budget they have submitted is strictly for the best interest of the kids, remember thatthe fine print in the school budget tells us differently.

The proposed budget increase will pay for the generous 8 percent salary raise the board of education agreed to two years ago in contract negotiations.

Teacher salaries in 1991-1992 will be an estimated $84.8 million -- more than half of the proposed budget.

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