Some of the seventh-graders at Owen Brown Middle School were hoping County Executive Charles I. Ecker would pull a rabbit out of his hat Monday and restore their four-day outdoor education program.
He didn't. But he did spend half an hour fielding tough questions from the26 students in Andrea Diegan's class, and 12-year-old Danny Baumwald, who sparked Ecker's visit, concluded that it was a good session.
The students wanted to know why Howard County is spending money on road construction rather than teachers' raises, whether Montgomery County schools are better than Howard's, and how the recycling program is going. They asked Ecker's opinions on civil rights, crime, population growth and whether he was afraid teachers would strike when they received no pay increases this year.
Ecker came to class after receiving a letter from Danny about the unfairness of having the outdoor education program cut from four days and three nights to one day. The program was shortened this year because many teachers are refusing to volunteer for after-school activities to protest budget cuts that eliminated their raises.
The teacher job action left the outdooreducation program without staffing for overnight stays.
"The teachers don't want to volunteer because you didn't giveany of the teachers raises. That is not fair. You gave yourself a raise and the countyrepresentatives a raise," Danny wrote.
Ecker explained to the students that the $20,000 increase for the executive and $9,500 increases for the County Council were approved by the previous council. The council is legally barred from voting raises for itself or the executive during its four-year terms.
The executive repeated earlier statements that he hopes all county employees receive raises in 1992-1993, but he could offer only sympathy for the outdoor education cutback.
"I'm sorry to see actions taken that would deprive the students,"Ecker said.
The outdoor education program gives middle school students a chance to spend several days at an environmental center, where staff instructors take them through woods, fields and streams to illustrate ecological lessons.
"A lot of people thought he (Ecker) would change his mind" and restore the outdoor program, said Seth Cohen, 12. But Seth knew better than to hope for an instant restoration, because he and his father had talked about the county's financial state.
Danny clung to the hope that his class will have a chance at the traditional outdoor education program next year in the eighth grade.
None of the students expressed anger at the teachers for their job action, but several pressed points about pay raises for teachers.
"They've spent a lot of money on roads," said Rebecca Doob, 12. She asked whether it wouldn't be better to spend the money on teachers' salaries.
Ecker replied that the county can borrow money to finance road construction but must pay teachers out of the money it receives each year from property taxes and other revenue sources.
The executive told the students he "sure was" worried that county teachersmight walk off the job this year despite the Maryland law that bars teachers from striking.
"I was hoping that teachers and other employees would understand the severe financial situation the county is in," he said, adding that he knows it is very difficult to face cutbacks "because Howard County has had so much for so long."
And yes, he told Jessie Bell, 13, he believes Howard's schools are better than Montgomery's.