Five days before they approve a revised county budget, County Council members still aren't sure what authority they have to change CountyExecutive Robert R. Neall's spending plan.
At issue is a $1.8 million cut the Board of Education recommended in classroom supplies andmaterials. Neall restored the money when he presented his budget to the council, using money the school board had saved by joining the county's self-insurance program.
School officials wonder if Neall had the authority to ignore the board's wishes. In three public hearings during the last week, schoolofficials and teachers have asked council members to allow the board-- not the county executive -- decide how to spend the money. Schoolunions want the board to use the insurance savings to reduce furlough days employees must take to help balance the budget.
"We're fighting long and hard to maintain control over our own budget," said school board President Jo Ann Tollenger. "That's what this is all about.It doesn't mean we can't cooperate."
The issue has thrown councilmembers into a legal quagmire, said Council Attorney Atwood Tate. Lawmakers want to help the school board out, but they're not sure if they can.
The dilemma has attorneys for the school board, the countyand the County Council giving conflicting advice. In the 26-year history of Charter Government, the county has never before struck a second budget in the same fiscal year.
"The unfair part of this is it's never been done before," Tate said. "There's no precedent here. Howwe handle this today is going to be the law tomorrow."
It is not clear whether Neall would have been able to restore the money for supplies under the county's normal budget process in May, but County Attorney Jud Garrett said a new state law, in effect until the end of the fiscal year, leaves no doubt that Neall has that authority now.
The law gives Neall and the council broad powers to reopen the budgetprocess and delete specific line items from the school budget -- with the exception of teachers and educational supplies -- for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30. Neall had asked the General Assembly for the expanded powers in a special legislative sessionthis fall.
Garrett interpreted the law to mean that any revised budget the council passed would be illegal unless the money for teaching supplies was restored, because the law requires the county to fundsupplies at the level approved by the council in June.
"If (Neall) and the council had passed the budget with that cut in there, it would have been invalid," Garrett said.
But school officials say they have the authority to cut their own budget. The state law, called Senate Bill 34, only prohibits Neall and the council from cutting teaching supplies and positions, not the school board. They also say theymade the cut before the state law passed.
"Senate Bill 34 doesn'tsay Board of Education, it says County Executive and County Council," Tollenger said. "We cut the money before Senate Bill 34, and we hadthe same authority after anyway. We want our right to call the shots."
But Garrett said it doesn't matter that the board made the cut before the state law passed, because final decisions on budget cuts are up to Neall and the council, which must comply with the law.
Hesaid the Board of Education isn't a part of the county decision-making body. The board doesn't make cuts to its budget -- it can only recommend cuts to Neall and the council. Senate Bill 34 applies only to the local "governing body" -- in Anne Arundel's case, the executive and the council -- which must make the decisions on the cuts.
Jack Schwartz, Chief Counsel for Opinions and Advice in the state AttorneyGeneral's office, said Garrett's interpretation is correct -- but only if the county attorney is also right that the school board only makes recommendations and doesn't have the authority to make cuts. Thatis a question that county and school attorneys must resolve.
"If the school board is making the recommendation, but the recommendationmust be taken by the County Executive and the County Council, then it is subject to the restrictions on teaching supplies and the money cannot be reduced," Schwartz said. "They don't have any choice in thatcase."
Garrett said the school board can't make cuts because a state law that outlines the budget process requires boards of educationto submit their budgets to the county executive.
"The board is not appropriating," Garrett said. "The board is recommending. They are saying, 'This is the budget we want.'"
Schwartz said Garrett's interpretation is probably right.
"In general, it is certainly true that the school board submits a recommendation to the County Executive," Schwartz said. "I'm not aware of anything in state law that prevents a County Executive from increasing the school board's budget."
The County Council will strike a new budget Monday. Because of SenateBill 34, council members say they are reluctant to give the school board control of the money, but they plan to study the issue further.
"I think we've got to take a look at that legally," said Council Chairwoman Virginia Clagett, D-West River. "I haven't made up my mind."
The issue may ultimately be decided by the courts, school officials predict, if school unions or taxpayers sue.
"We're not going to sue," said school Budget Officer Jack White, "but someone might."