More, more moratoria

June 17, 1992

Baltimore County officials say they want their feet held to the fire to solve school crowding since they've OK'ed their second construction moratorium in a month. Now if only the politicians would stop squirming when they smell the smoke.

The council voted unanimously this week to extend for three more years the ban on residential construction in communities with badly crowded schools. The restriction has been in effect for 18 months. The council also voted to ensure that specific plans be drawn up to solve crowding at 19 schools that will have fall enrollments at least 20 percent greater than their capacities. Several weeks ago, the county worked out a smaller voluntary building ban in the White Marsh area to give the county time to deal with inadequate schools and roads in that growth area.

Some council members who voted for the latest moratorium wonder if it'll even be effective, because of several loopholes that were inserted to appease the building community. The moratorium isn't supposed to be a remedy, however, as much a reminder: That the county must resolve itself to address its school shortages.

These moratoria are viable only if they're meant as an acknowledgment that the county can't ignore its infrastructure, that it is bolting the door so it can finally battle its demons.

Since 1980, the county's education spending has been more on a par with Baltimore City, and Allegany and Somerset counties than with the other Central Maryland suburbs, according to a recent 10-year financial survey by the state Department of Education. Spending for school operations, construction and debt service grew 86 percent in the county from 1980-1990 -- compared with 111 percent growth statewide. Spending growth in most of the other major suburbs far exceeded the state average. Baltimore County's spending per pupil, ranked 11th in the state, also lagged slightly behind its ability to spend: It ranked ninth in assessable property value per pupil. It's basic "guns versus butter" economics; local government chooses to spend on schools or something else.

When area superintendents wish they could "be like Mike," they don't mean Jordan the basketball star, they mean Hickey the superintendent in Howard County, where school spending is tops in the state with 200 percent growth over the past decade. Baltimore County can't be expected to match affluent Howard, but the leadership in Towson must refocus its commitment to education to get back in the pack. Retiring county superintendent Robert Y. Dubel fought the good fight for education for many years, but maybe it's just as well that a new face, Stuart Berger, now enters the scene. With a reputation for conservative management, Dr. Berger may have more success convincing this council of the need to invest in education. Even before Dr. Berger's first day on the new job, the council has vowed that it is ready to start thinking in that direction.

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