Schools' Budget: Did Someone Cry 'Wolf'?

COMMENT

February 28, 1993|By KEVIN THOAMS | KEVIN THOAMS,Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

And now the school system's budget -- loaded with $203 million worth of staff, supplies and special programs -- winds its way toward the hostile land of county officials.

Our lumbering juggernaut has been launched again. We await its fate. . . .

In the meantime, let us reflect.

One is practically wasted at this point in the budget season. I, personally, draw a sigh of relief, having watched this process crescendo to its inevitable conclusion. Or at least its inevitable climax. Until the Howard County executive and County Council have their way with the budget, the show is certainly not over.

It began, as I recall, with the opening day of school. No sooner had the kiddies crossed the school yard than officials were complaining that the schools were so overcrowded that there might not be enough teachers to go around.

That, of course, was about the same time state officials were sharpening the budget ax, and local officials were rubbing their own necks in horror.

The message seemed clear to me: School officials were not about to stand by while county officials pillaged the school system cupboards the way they did the year before.

And so the cries went out: "Not here, you ugly mob! You have raided these storehouses before and we were already cut to the bone!"

Before it was all over, every conceivable roadblock was thrown into the way of those who would consider cutting the school board budget.

There was talk of having to go to year-around schools, double-shifting and early openings for high schools. Each proposal was trucked out with great fanfare, as if any one might be a serious possibility.

And yet, each one seemed so utterly out of the question that some of us dared ask whether they were just part of a school system scare tactic.

"Not so!" indignant officials said. "These are real possibilities unless someone comes to his senses."

Well, we all came to our senses. Now the school system's mighty ship is loaded with $1 million more than even the superintendent asked for. And there is not one mention of year-round schools or any of that other stuff.

And should anyone think the school system is pulling away from the dock fat and happy, school board Chairman Dana Hanna made it clear that these are still dire times.

"There is a lot of unfunded need still in the budget," said Mr. Hanna, christening this year's great budget ship. "And I say need, not want."

With that, I guess we are supposed to stand on the dock waving hankies, praying that our vessel sails smoothly through the treacherous waters ahead.

Get a grip!

This is a ritual so worn it deserves ridicule.

The fact is, every budget cycle witnesses this sort of theatrical presentation. Bureaucracies, by their nature, protect themselves. The worst possible scenarios always surface in the face of cutbacks.

As Mr. Hanna himself recently admitted, "There is always some political machinations for funding."

But Mr. Hanna is also committed to the process. By his estimation, the kind of "friction" that occurs during the budget process, where horrible outcomes are weighed against the status quo, is good for the system.

"It's not all negatives," he says. "It's a process."

That may be true. But how many times can the school system dust off this old script before all of us get a little jaded?

And when a real crisis occurs, who's going to believe it?

School officials owe it to the community to be honest at all times about the school system's true status.

Howard County's schools have a natural constituency that strongly backs the overall program. This is part of the reason the school system remains one of the most successful in Maryland.

But school officials should be careful how they marshal their supporters.

No one likes to be treated like a pawn in an elaborate game, no matter how good the cause or righteous the victory.

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