On the street below his fourth-floor office at the Arundel Center, ascreaming crowd of 2,000 pro-education protesters vilified County Executive Robert R. Neall for wanting to cut education spending.
Neall heard the shouting, but remained unmoved. Vowing to "do the right thing," the executive said he is not going to be intimidated by the powerful education lobby in his quest to keep local government solvent-- even if it costs him his political future.
"I'm doing what's in the public's interest, and what's in the public's interest is to solve this fiscal crisis now," Neall said.
Neall faces a $7.9 million loss in state aid -- on top of an earlier $9.3 million cut -- under the governor's plan to reduce a $450 million state deficit. That plan, approved by the General Assembly Friday night, awaits the governor's signature.
Built into the budget-cuttingbill is an amendment, which Neall recommended, that has pro-education forces seething. The amendment would give county governments limited power to cut quasi-state agencies such as boards of education, libraries, community colleges and sheriff's departments until June 30, 1992, the end of the fiscal year.
State law prohibits counties from making cuts to those budgets -- and that, education leaders say, is how it should stay.
Carrying placards proclaiming, "Neall, You are Dead in the Water," "Hands Off the Budget" and "Only a Politician Would Steal From Children," yesterday's protesters made it clear they see Neall's amendment as a threat to the quality of education.
What education leaders apparently did not make clear to parents, teachers and students who turned out to oppose the Neall amendment is that themeasure exempts money intended for instructional material and equipment and "positions responsible for classroom instruction," namely, teachers.
"What is 'in-classroom' instruction, anyway?" asked Tom Paolino, president of the 4,000-member Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.
Education leaders were saying yesterday that Neall's amendment gives him the right to break their contracts and cut theirsalaries. Neall says he wants all county employees, including teachers, to take a 4 percent pay cut, but the amendment gives him no power to force the issue.
General government workers will have to take a 9.1 percent salary loss if school employees refuse to take a pay cut.If no one is willing to accept wage concessions, Neall said 400 to 600 county workers would lose their jobs.
Beyond asking school employees to take a salary reduction, Neall says he wants to reopen the budget process for all county departments to see where further cuts can be made. If education, which accounts for 57 percent of Anne Arundel's budget, is held harmless, the rest of county government will be decimated, he said.
Education cuts "will be done sensitively," Neall said. "It will be done fairly. But it will be done."
Neall wouldnot have the power to cut specific line items from school board and other quasi-state agencies under the budget-cutting bill. Whether he would be able to cut by category is unclear, he said, noting that theState Attorney General's Office is studying that question now.
The school spending issue is the first serious threat to Neall's popularity since his election last fall. He says he isn't concerned.
"I don't think this is the kind of environment in which political futures are made, anyway," said Neall. Though he refuses to discuss the issue, Neall is widely considered a leading candidate for governor in 1994.
"I'm not in this for political aggrandizement," he said. "If you try to do the right thing, usually things turn out all right. Thisis not the time to consider politics. My job is to keep Anne ArundelCounty government operational."
Not only do many other local politicians support Neall's move for more control over school spending during the economic crisis, but some criticize the school board for irresponsibly riling public sentiment by forecasting the elimination of services near and dear to taxpayers' hearts.
"Bobby's gotta do what he's gotta do," said Sen. Michael J. Wagner, D-Ferndale. "Now the Board of Education is running around saying they're going to have to cut buses for after-school activities. That's totally irresponsible. They have a $341 million budget. If they can't cut $8 million, then they must have some budget."
Wagner referred to a recent memo from Deputy School Superintendent C. Berry Carter warning that the school board might have to cut after-school activities if the state's budget-reduction plan passed.
At a meeting between the school board and County Council on school redistricting, tensions erupted over that same memo.
"I don't like coming right out and saying we're going to cut out all sports and extracurricular activities and getting people all riled up," said Councilman Edward Middlebrooks, D-Severn. "I don'tthink that's any way to do business."