Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker received a legal opinion from the state attorney general's office yesterday that will allow him to trim about $2.9 million from the education budget.
The superintendent of schools has said such a cutback could affect class sizes or the previously negotiated 6 percent pay raise for teachers, which Mr. Ecker has criticized as unnecessary in a time of "financial crisis."
At issue was a state regulation that requires local jurisdictions to maintain at least the same level of spending per pupil as the previous year.
The attorney general said the formula used to determine per-pupil spending need not include money spent on capital expenses or to keep schools open after hours for community programs, although the cost of busing students must be considered.
Mr. Ecker had hoped all three expenses could be eliminated from the formula, which would have allowed him to give the school system about $7 million less than it expected next year.
Superintendent Michael E. Hickey has maintained that the county is required under the state formula to give the school board $5.2 million more than the $140.5 million it received this year, because the system expects 1,300 more students.
Under the new interpretation of the formula, however, the school budget for next year would be about $142.8 million, a cut of $2.9 million.
The executive said he planned to talk with Dr. Hickey and school board members before deciding how much to give the school system.
"I will give them whatever the maintenance of effort that the state mandates," said Mr. Ecker, who expects to wait until mid-April before making a final decision.
He said it would be up to the school board to decide whether it should revoke the teachers' raises, but he still supports eliminating any pay raises for the coming year.
"I think it is very difficult to explain to the police, fire and other employees why they cannot get a raise when the teachers are," Mr. Ecker said.
Dr. Hickey hinted previously that the county Board of Education might take legal action if the new legal interpretation hurt the school system. He was ill yesterday and unavailable for comment.
On another front, the House of Delegates is set today to consider a budget measure with an amendment that would permit local governments to waive any increases in school spending based on the per-pupil formula for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The amendment has received theapproval of a large majority of the House Appropriations Committee. If it is passed by the General Assembly, the attorney general's opinion would be moot for this year and no increase in school spending would be necessary.
Sydney Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations, said the Howard school system had "plenty of concerns" about losing revenue from the county based on the attorney general's opinion or as a result of the amendment to the General Assembly bill.
"We are waiting for it to wash out, seeing what happens in Annapolis," he said. "We can't react to every amendment introduced until we know the final outcome."
Mr. Ecker's attempts to cut school spending have aroused the ire of the Howard County Education Association, which represents 2,700 county teachers, administrators and teacher's aides,
In an emergency session Tuesday, the group's representative council passed a resolution agreeing to launch a protest of Mr. Ecker's actions. Members plan to meet March 12 to vote on the type of protest they will undertake, said Jim Swab, the association's president.
It could include rallies, telephone calls and letters to the executive and perhaps a "work to rule" action in which teachers would perform no duties outside the contract, he said.