It boils down to a fiscal fight to the finish, and County Executive Robert R. Neall is not sure the Board of Education is in his corner -- at least that was the position he took with 18 parents, students and community protest organizers yesterday afternoon.
"This is a crisis that is not remotely close to anything we've seen," Neall said after the meeting. "I think they are pursuing their own agenda. I had to pull in the control. If I can't get it voluntarily, I'll get it involuntarily."
Neall had listened to 2,000 protesters gathered below his office at the Arundel Center Tuesday night, waving signs like "Neall Hates Kids." A messenger was sent down to ask that leaders meet with him.
"For the record, I'd like to say that I have three children in public schools," Neall said during yesterday's 2 1/2-hour meeting. "No onecares more about education than I do."
Carolyn Roeding, presidentof the countywide Parent-Teacher Association, asked Neall to explainwhy he needed an amendment to take power away from the school board to make budget cuts.
Neall, who offered few specifics in answeringmost questions, said nothing would change if the amendment is signedby Gov. William Donald Schaefer Friday.
"If nothing changes, thenwhy do you need this amendment?" Roeding asked. "The board has cooperated with you. You asked them to cut $5 million from their budget and they did. I don't understand. Why do you feel the Board of Education won't cooperate?"
At times during the meeting, Neall seemed likea student being scolded by an angry parent. At other times, he spokeloudly, waving the amendment and arguing it simply meant going through the traditional budget process.
Under current state law, Neall may only ask the board to make cuts to its $341 million 1991-1992 operating budget. The amendment would allow Neall to reduce that appropriation himself.
Parents, students and educators have argued that the school board should make cuts to its own budget.
Annapolis-areaPTA representative Susan Amos accused Neall of using the amendment as a power play.
"You said one thing that distresses you is that you do not have control over the Board of Education's budget," Amos said. "I'm concerned that this is a set-up. You want line-item control. If you want the Board of Education to help, why did you go at it in acombative way?"
Representatives from the teachers and secretariesunions accused Neall of pushing the amendment through at the last minute, without legislators fully understanding what they were signing.They also complained that school officials, including Deputy Superintendent C. Berry Carter, were not informed in advance of the amendment.
Carter was among those removed from yesterday's meeting at the request of the fire marshal, because the hearing room was at capacity.
"Ask the school board to bring in a certain amount and they willcooperate," said Anne Young, president of the countywide Citizens Advisory Committee. "You haven't asked them."
No school board members were present during the meeting, which seemed to reach a stalemate after an hour.
Dee Zepp, president of the Secretaries and Assistants Association of Anne Arundel County, urged the executive to spread the financial burdens among all county residents.
"You said it's acounty problem, then every person in this county should bear part ofthis belt-tightening," Zepp said. "Mr. Neall, everyone who helped toelect you should help bear the burden. Don't put the burden on some.
"By the way," she added, "I didn't vote for you."
The laughterafter that remark seemed to ease the tension momentarily, but the group appeared frustrated that Neall seemed determined to carry out hisagenda.
Parents left with no promises from Neall reconsidering his position.
Afterward, Neall said he views the possibility of a tax hike as a last option.
"The misery is there," he said, "and I will try to spread that misery as judiciously as I can," Neall said.
The executive said parents will have input into which programs wouldbe cut through public hearings with the County Council.
After themeeting, Roeding extended her hand to Neall and reminded him that the protest was a parent initiative, not organized by the Board of Education.
"Oh, really? Then why was the Board of Education closed at 4 p.m. to let people go to the protest?" Neall asked her.
During the meeting, he complained that his daughters' Functional Test was interrupted by announcements about the rally.
Seventeen-year-old Jennifer Wiswall, student government president at South River Senior, asked Neall to remember that students are the bottom line and to be fair. She was among the hundreds of student protesters waving signs the night before.
"Will you help me?" Neall asked.
"Help you make the cuts, yes," Jennifer said. "But that's why I can't understand why you need the power to be handed to you. Why can't the Board of Education make them? They are educated and trained to know what we need."