School officials around Maryland are blasting a proposed change in state law that would give county governments the authority to cut money already appropriated for the schools.
The bill, in effect, would give county councils and executives limited power to decide where those cuts are to be made, power
that now resides solely with local school boards, educators say.
The change came in two last-minute amendments Friday to the budget-cutting bill approved by the state legislature and due for Gov. William Donald Schaefer's signature later this week.
Education officials see the measure as a radical attack on the autonomy of local boards of education, and are asking the governor to delay signing the bill.
"There's some concern that it could put politics into the education process, even more than it already is," said Arthur Boyd, executive director of the Metropolitan Education Coalition, an umbrella group focusing on education.
Meanwhile, thousands of teachers, parents and others concerned with education were expected to protest in Annapolis later today against the proposed $29.3 million cuts in state aid to local education and the proposed shift in budget authority.
A group calling itself the Coalition To Save Our Schools is to meet on the steps of the State House at 6:15 p.m.
The proposed change would seriously undercut the authority of local school boards to set spending priorities, said Susan Buswell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.
State law now prohibits a county government from cutting the education budget once it approves it and sets a tax rate to fund it, Buswell said. Current law specifically excludes Baltimore City, where the school board is appointed by the mayor.
But Friday, the legislature approved a change saying a county "may take any action necessary, including any action to reduce a previously approved appropriation," to manage its fiscal affairs. That means, in effect, that county governments can cut education funds they already have approved, Buswell said.
Specifically exempt are funds intended for instructional materials and equipment, and "positions responsible for classroom instruction," meaning teachers.
The legislature passed the measure at the last minute, "without a lot of responsible input," Buswell said.
"It takes out of control of boards of education the control of the budget once it has been set, and I think that's a mistake," said John Bloom, superintendent in Charles County and past-president of the state superintendents' association.
Michael E. Hickey, superintendent of Howard County public schools, said boards of education can best where cuts should be made.
"I know the situation is worsening and there are cuts to be made," Hickey said, "but we have demonstrated, both last year and this year, our willingness to work with the county."
He added that the school system returned $2.6 million to the county after being asked to give back $2 million to help head off a projected $20 million budget deficit in the last fiscal year.
Said James Swab, president of the Howard County teachers' union, "We are appalled, because what the amendment does is strip the school board of its autonomy and turn the budget over DTC to the county."
"I don't think that's the case," said amendment supporter Del. Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, who has taught and coached at a parochial school. He said the amendment gives counties the flexibility to adjust their overall budgets, while seeking input from the school boards.
"No one is asking that the school boards not be involved," Busch said. But, he added, "everybody should realize this recession this period is very real. It touches all of us."
Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden today spoke in support of the power to cut school budgets, saying, "I favor it and will use it."
Hayden said the general county budget is faced with a $24 million cut. At the same time, the school budget, which represents 43 percent of the county budget faces only a $3 million cut.
He rejected school arguments that the new law will open the door to political interference in the schools, saying tough times make that risk necessary.
Hayden is a former school board member and president who campaigned for county executive last year partly in anger over attempts by former County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen to gain the power to appoint school board members.
Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel, who has announced his retirement at the end of the school year, has opposed the budget cuts and the change that would alter control of local school budgets.
"We don't think the amendments are necessary, because we have a close working relationship with the county government," Dubel said.
Baltimore County schools have cancelled in-service classes for teachers tonight, so they can attend the Annapolis protest.