Who Should Control School Purse?

November 12, 1992

Why is Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker so happy and Superintendent Michael E. Hickey so furious with the way the governor proposes to cut $6.9 million in local aid?

All one has to do is recall the last two years, during which state revenues have withered, for some clue to the reactions of Messrs. Ecker and Hickey. The county school system has had to absorb about $9 million in cuts in that period.

Mr. Hickey is concerned that the proposed reduction of $6.9 million -- the state's payment of Social Security taxes for school employees as well as community college and library workers -- will fall on the school budget alone. County officials insist that the cut will be spread among county agencies and the school system.

Mr. Ecker is supportive of the governor's proposed cut because he believes it may lead toward restructuring the way education is financed.

Mr. Ecker contemplates such sweeping changes as giving boards of education their own taxing authority or placing the school operation under control of the county executive and County Council.

A former deputy school superintendent himself, Mr. Ecker believes making the school system or the county wholly responsible for taxing and spending for education would increase accountability. His isn't the only jurisdiction wrestling with the subject. Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall caused a stir last winter when he won legislative approval for special limited authority over the school budget so he could react to state budget cuts. And in Carroll County, the commissioners and some residents are still smarting over a generous salary deal the school board made to Superintendent R. Edward Shilling.

As for Mr. Ecker's proposals, there may be merit in giving the County Council and the executive direct control over the school system and its budget. The system's current set-up seems to guarantees frustration -- by labor unions, which negotiate contracts with a board that has no power to fund them, and by the school system, which seems in a perpetual state of confrontation with county government.

As for giving school boards taxing authority, we're leary of establishing, in effect, dual governments in the county. We're also not convinced that such a radical re-make of local taxing and school budget structures would be a means to the end that Mr. Ecker seeks: greater discipline in school spending.

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