School budget farce in Howard

January 28, 1992

Economic strains wiped out salary increases for Howard County teachers in fiscal 1992. The $183 million fiscal 1993 budget proposed by school superintendent Michael E. Hickey doesn't even address the issue. Yet the school board, bowing to pressure from the Howard County Education Association, is negotiating salary increases.

This makes little sense. This budget -- which calls for cutting 34 mostly central administration positions and minor trims in programs, services and other personnel areas -- will change dramatically in coming weeks. Looming cuts in state aid could drain $8 million from county coffers, $5 million from education. County revenue projections are another wild card. Yet the school board has reopened the existing contract -- which provides for a pay hike of 6 percent -- with the apparent intention of negotiating a smaller increase. This would stand even if it meant further program cuts.

Certainly, there's a legitimate case to be made for salary increases. Howard teachers went without pay raises of any kind last year while many of their counterparts in other jurisdictions received incremental and merit hikes. Even now, teachers face furloughs.

The question is whether and to what extent fatter paychecks compromise education in Howard County. The current budget already does away with school psychologists and curriculum experts and teachers who identify gifted first-graders. Unless there is a turnaround in the county's revenue situation, Mr. Hickey anticipates further cuts in staff development, gifted and talented programs and student transportation.

In these circumstances, reopening salary negotiations was unwise. The Howard County school board has now obligated itself to funding increases that could seriously affect schools in a county known for quality education. At this point, the board has no choice but to try to work out a compromise. One solution would be to grant only longevity and merit increases. This relatively inexpensive gesture would boost morale without significantly impinging on classroom programs.

The budget farce being acted out in Howard illustrates the folly of empowering school boards to set salaries without commensurate control over the purse-strings. Dickering over pay hikes begins this week. Yet the school board is operating in the dark. There's no way to know how much the county stands to lose in state aid, and county revenue projections are only now being worked up. Worse, the school board's bill will be paid by the county executive, not the board itself.

Howard teachers have had a rough time of it for reasons beyond their control this past year. Promising pay raises that cannot be funded would be cruel and unnecessary punishment.

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