Arundel's impractical school budget

January 29, 1992

Anne Arundel County faces near-comatose revenue growth this year and next. It could lose up to $15 million in the next round of cuts in state aid. These circumstances dictate a county budget based on prudence and limited priorities. Yet the school system's $374 million spending blueprint for the next school year shows signs of neither.

Anne Arundel School Superintendent Larry L. Lorton is recommending a stunning 12.5 percent net increase in school spending of $42 million. The additional funding -- roughly what it takes to run the police or fire department -- would bankroll such things as 120 new teachers, 17 guidance counselors, nurses, psychologists, secretaries, clerical help, teacher sabbaticals, computers and software and technology for instructional support, minority college scholarships and private school tuition for severely emotionally disturbed children.

Some of these items are essential, such as new teachers to support a growth spurt of 2,700 kids and funding for troubled children. But much of this request is a wish list masquerading as a budget. We can't see where computers and teacher sabbaticals are critical to classroom instruction. The fiscal strains on local government are immense and, as Dr. Lorton well knows, necessarily radiate to education, which accounts over half of the county's budget.

Amazingly, Dr. Lorton sees nothing extravagant in this spending request. His job, as he sees it, is to identify the school system's needs. The hard priority decisions and cost containment apparently fall to others. The absurdity of Dr. Lorton's request becomes all the more glaring compared to the much smaller and more realistic increases sought in Howard County and Baltimore County.

In these extraordinary fiscal circumstances, Mr. Lorton's job transcends merely identifying the needs of the system. He is in the best position to recommend which of many worthy programs should be kept, cut back or eliminated. He should be the one recommending ways to deal with escalating health care and energy costs.

Dr. Lorton's abdication of responsibility is being interpreted by some as a parting shot in his long-standing feud with the county board of education, which reportedly prompted his resignation last week. Perhaps. Whatever its origins, the Lorton budget clearly falls short. In these times, more than ever, leadership is essential to balance the lopsided equation of shrinking revenues and growing educational needs.

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