Baltimore County School Superintendent Stuart Berger raised more than a few eyebrows with his proposed $535.7 million budget for the 1993-94 academic year. That represents an increase of $56.4 million over the current operating budget.
Some observers asked, does this guy live in a cave? How could he cook up such a fat request to the school board when the county is abuzz with words like "deficit," "layoffs" and "downsize"?
Dr. Berger cites numerous factors to defend his wish list. Inflation. Rising enrollment. Skyrocketing health care costs. Teachers who haven't had general raises in two years. The need to update technology in classrooms and offices.
But check out the state of the county's economy -- a $32 million budget deficit, pink slips any day now for hundreds of government workers. It makes Dr. Berger's wishes seem more like pipe dreams. In such a bleak climate, could he win his budget increase, or teachers their raises? Dream on.
Some might rap Dr. Berger for making his first budget proposal an apparently unreasonable one. We might make the case, however, that it's his role to ask for everything he can get, especially when he has been brought in to institute major changes in a school system that needed a good shake. Big changes can cost big bucks. Besides, if he won't ask for the money, who will?
The politicians won't say much about the Berger proposal, though they can't be thrilled about that increase. They've been down this road before, as recently as a year ago, when County Executive Roger Hayden and the County Council had to slice and dice their way through a hefty school budget proposal and were later vilified for doing so.
Here's where school board members should step in and do the right thing. Maybe Dr. Berger has to ask for the moon, but board members have a different obligation. In the past, they tended to rubber-stamp fat budgets and dump them in the executive's lap. If they do it again this year, look out. They probably won't recognize their proposal once Mr. Hayden and the council make Julienne fries out of it. Unlike school officials, those elected politicians must answer to the voting public. They won't be in any mood for a pie-in-the-sky school budget.
If they really want to do what's fair and responsible, board members will have to craft a budget proposal that's sensitive to both the school system and the economic realities of Baltimore County. Then, when the economy turns around, the county will surely owe one to the school system.