School budget relay in Towson

February 05, 1993

The four-leg relay race known as the Baltimore County school budget process is now in its second leg. The baton is in the hands of the county's Board of Education. How the board members handle it over the next month will determine whether or not they pass on a responsible plan of their own to County Executive Roger Hayden.

Superintendent Stuart Berger finished leg one last week when he gave the school board his request for a $535.7 million budget for the 1993-94 academic year -- an increase of $56.4 million over the current operating budget. In leg two, the board will massage the Berger proposal and then submit it by March 1 to Mr. Hayden, for leg three. He'll then work over the budget prior to submitting it in mid-April to the County Council. In the fourth leg, the council can make cuts, but no additions, before approving the budget's final version.

The politicians won't say much publicly about the Berger wish list, though they can't be happy about that hefty increase. Dr. Berger says inflation and rising student enrollment necessitate the increase, which includes $9 million in teacher raises.

Dr. Berger's wishes, however, seem more like pipe dreams, given the sorry state of the county's economy -- a $32 million budget deficit and imminent layoffs of up to 500 government employees.

The argument could be made that it's the superintendent's role to ask for all he can get, particularly when he has just been brought on to institute big changes. That can cost big bucks, after all.

School board members should have a different role, though. When handed fat budget proposals in the past, they tended to rubber-stamp them on their way to the next stages. If they do it again this year -- especially this year -- they might not recognize their proposal once the executive and the council are through with it. Unlike school officials, those elected politicians must answer to the voting public.

As Mr. Hayden said when asked about the Berger proposal, the school board "must do its thing. When it's my turn to look at what they've done, I'll do my thing." Indeed, the board will have to "do its thing" prudently. To ensure a smooth passing of the baton, board members must craft a budget proposal that's sensitive to both the school system and the economic realities in Baltimore County.

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