The toughest budget question facing local governments this year is education spending. Unlike some other services, public schools are non-negotiable necessities of the first order -- in good times or bad. Yet virtually every jurisdiction is grappling with a budget shortfall.
Most local school czars have responded to this dilemma with impossibly large budget requests. In Montgomery County, School Superintendent Harry Pitt has submitted a $782.2 million proposal that would accommodate the biggest enrollment spurt since the late 1960s and raise teachers' salaries 6.5 percent. Despite its size -- about $77.4 million -- the increase is billed as a "hold the line budget."
Similarly hefty requests are on the table in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties. One noteworthy exception: Howard County School Superintendent Michael Hickey has hacked $10.5 million from his $200.8 million budget request.
The Montgomery package would provide money for, among other things, educating an additional 4,000 students, more help for the system's youngest pupils and special assistance for youngsters at risk of dropping out of school.
These are worthy initiatives but hardly essential in light of Montgomery's alarming fiscal situation. County Executive Neal Potter is asking county employees to choose between scheduled pay hikes or layoffs to close a $175 million budget deficit. Is an 11 percent increase -- half of which would go to teacher and support staff salaries -- reasonable under these circumstances? We think not.
Montgomery school budgets have in the past been virtually untouchable. But economic realities demand a different approach. School systems, like other publicly funded entities, must adjust to tough times. Howard's Dr. Hickey -- who has recommended cutting 59 positions, paring programs and equipment -- apparently understands this.
Others would do well to follow his lead. Instead of wasting time submitting pie-in-the sky budgets that can't possibly be funded, school leaders ought to seek ways to cut costs without impairing the quality of education.
Compounding this problem is the current practice of school boards negotiating wages for system employees, then letting the county executive and council decide if there's enough money to pay for it. In good times, this practice merely breeds contention. In the current environment, it puts counties in the impossible position of coming up with money that simply isn't there.