Why Is Chuck Ecker Smiling? HOWARD COUNTY

November 12, 1992

Why is Chuck Ecker so happy and Mike 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 Howard County school system has had to absorb about $9 million in cuts in that period.

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

Mr. Ecker, the county executive, is supportive of the way the governor and legislative leaders want to make the cut because it would cost the county about $1 million less than another option. Mr. Ecker also believes the action might lead to a major restructuring of the way education is financed.

Mr. Ecker contemplates sweeping changes, such as giving local 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. All of Mr. Ecker's proposals should be approached with caution.

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 practically guarantees frustration -- by labor unions, which negotiate contracts with a board that has no power to fund the settlements, and by the school system, which seems in a perpetual state of confrontation with county government, even one headed by a former school administrator.

As for giving local school boards taxing authority, we're leery about establishing, in effect, dual governments in the county. We're also not convinced that such a radical re-make of the 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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