Life Preserver for the Counties

April 07, 1991

The General Assembly tossed a life preserver to local governments last week by suspending the state mandate requiring them to boost school funding in line with rising enrollments. This action, intended to give local jurisdictions maneuvering room at a time when many are facing burdensome shortfalls, sharpens the debate over school-board priorities.

In most counties, the practical effect will be to tighten the screws on already sparse education budgets, forcing school boards to re-visit the question of negotiated salary increases for teachers. It could also help some local executives balance their budgets. In Howard County, where the education budget could be cut up to $8 million, these savings could substantially reduce the number of county workers facing layoffs or mitigate an inevitable property tax increase. In Anne Arundel County, schools budget officer Jack White figures the change will amount to about $3 million -- the equivalent of about 100 teaching positions. Carroll County schools stand to lose about $1.3 million, enough to hire 30 new teachers to accommodate 525 additional students.

At this point, it can't be known how the funding moratorium will play out in each jurisdiction. In some -- such as Baltimore City and Harford and Baltimore counties -- officials are strongly committed to maintaining class sizes or increasing per-pupil spending. In those jurisdictions that do opt to cut school funding, however, school boards and teachers should view the moratorium for what it is -- a temporary measure designed to give local governments funding flexibility.

For school boards, this will undoubtedly mean unpalatable but necessary priority-setting. For teachers in many jurisdictions, it may end hopes for higher salaries this year. School budgets have been pared to the quick in most jurisdictions. Funding teacher pay increases at the expense of class sizes and jobs would be irresponsible and counter-productive.

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