Reluctantly, the Montgomery County Board of Education has done the unimaginable -- pared its $782 million budget request by $16 million. In Howard County, School Superintendent Michael Hickey has hacked $10.5 million from his original $200.8 million budget proposal.
Moves like these, unthinkable a year ago, demonstrate the competing imperatives confronting counties in the region. They also demonstrate a disturbing pattern of priorities: Scheduled pay raises for teachers and support staff have been conspicuously absent from the cutting board.
In Montgomery, the reduction quashes plans for such improvements as smaller elementary school classes and expanding all-day kindergarten. In Howard, Dr. Hickey has recommended cutting 59 positions and paring programs and equipment.
In both counties, known for their top-flight schools, these sacrifices have been met with much teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing. Montgomery's board angrily laments that the cuts will erode programs at every level. "There is no way we cannot hurt kids," said member Carol Fanconi tearfully. "I am angry about having to cut into something I care very deeply about."
No one knows how much more can be trimmed from these school budgets, but neither county, particularly Montgomery, has gone far enough. Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter warns that the school system may need to carve its budget by as much as $70 million.
If school boards are so passionate about the children whose interests they represent, they ought to turn to an obvious area for savings: the payroll. Scheduled 6.5 percent pay raises for Montgomery teachers and support staff are worth about $38 million; salary hikes in Howard total $8 million.
With the state imposing a pay freeze on its 90,000 workers and county employees elsewhere facing deferred raises or layoffs, padding teachers' paychecks is patently unfair and strategically foolhardy. It may persuade state legislators to reduce local school aid.
One voice of reason can be heard in Baltimore County, where the school board has found the courage to delay approval of contracts negotiated with system employees while it looks for ways to trim its budget.
This signals a willingness to consider all items, a welcome change in a region where the demands of teachers and administrators usually hold sway. The recession's sudden onslaught has brought to light an unpleasant hypocrisy: local school boards may profess wrenching concern about the quality of education, but they opt to cut programs rather than salaries. Montgomery and Howard have taken modest steps to address the new economic reality, but the real work has yet to begin.