The Howard County education lobby flexed its collective muscle yesterday, urging the County Council to restore the $8.9 million cut from the school board's budget by Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker.
Superintendent of Schools Michael E. Hickey yesterday sharply criticized Mr. Ecker's cuts, saying they would reduce Howard County school spending for the next fiscal year by $3.1 million over the current year even though enrollment is expected to increase by nearly 1,400 students.
And the PTA Council of Howard County said it would even back an increase in the county's property tax rate, above the 14 cents already proposed by Mr. Ecker, to avoid what the association said were "drastic cuts to the education budget."
"Parents are stunned by the realization that quality education in Howard County is seriously jeopardized," Rosemary Mortimer, president of the PTA Council, told the County Council yesterday during a crowded budget hearing.
Mr. Hickey said that Howard was the only county in the Baltimore metropolitan region making such cutbacks in education funding and that the cuts would mean a loss in revenue equivalent to $132,500 for each elementary school, $198,750 for each middle school and $265,000 for each of the high schools next school year.
"Is this the best effort of Howard County, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the state and the jurisdiction with the lowest tax rate in the metro area? Not in my book it isn't," said Mr. Hickey.
And Mr. Hickey warned that unless the council restores some of the money, the school system will see larger class sizes, fewer supplies and materials, deferrals of needed maintenance and delays in services.
The $8.9 million cut by Mr. Ecker, a former deputy superintendent of schools, came after the School Board pared $12.4 million in mid-March from Mr. Hickey's original $200 million budget at Mr. Ecker's urging.
The superintendent said it would take three to five years to recover from the cuts even if the economy were to pick up.
He said the council should support the School Board's proposed $188.4 million budget.
"We know the cost of excellence. What we don't know is the price we
ultimately will pay for mediocrity," Mr. Hickey said.
The three Democrats on the five-member council gave clear indications that they wanted to restore some education funds. During a break in the almost five-hour hearing, Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd District, said that the legislative body might consider even higher property taxes.
"We may be looking at something beyond the 14-cent property (( tax increase Mr. Ecker is suggesting," Mr. Gray said, adding that he saw little to transfer from the county's general budget to its education budget.
Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st District, said raising property taxes beyond the proposed $2.59 rate is "an option" that the council will consider.
But Republican Councilman Darrel Drown said he would oppose increasing the property tax beyond 14 cents.
"The Democrats are calling for more property taxes, but it is not something the public wants in these recessionary times," he said. "We need to look at shaving a penny or two off the 14-cent proposal."
Mr. Drown said he favored adding money to the education budget, however, to save the middle school gifted and talented program, which was eliminated in the cutbacks.
School Board Chairwoman Deborah D. Kendig told the council she was concerned "about the negative messages which are being sent out daily to the world from Howard County and about Howard County."
"I come to you for assurance. I come to you for assistance. I come to you for leadership," she told the council.
Jim Swab, president of the Howard County Education Association, said he "never witnessed such a blatant attack on our school system," adding that Mr. Ecker's "actions will be long remembered."
The teachers' association has undertaken a three-day "work to rule" action and staged a protest rally as part of its efforts to convince the
council to restore the $8.9 million to the school board budget. Restoring the money would permit a 6 percent pay raise and step increases for teachers.
The association's lobbying for pay raises resulted in a backlash from a small contingent of county employees, who demonstrated yesterday outside the county office building against the teachers' position.
The county government employees noted they were also denied pay raises next fiscal year and expressed concern that financing the teachers' demands could lead to more layoffs of county employees. Earlier this month, the county executive laid off 40 county employees.