Return of the Rubber Stamp

March 02, 1993

When Baltimore County School Superintendent Stuart Berger proposed a $535.7 million budget for the 1993-94 academic year -- $56.4 million more than the current operating budget -- some observers cringed. They wondered how Dr. Berger could ask for such a hike, including a flat $1,400 raise for each teacher, when the county government was planning hundreds of layoffs and service reductions to help erase a $32 million deficit.

The superintendent defended his wish list, unveiled last month, by citing inflation, rising enrollment, skyrocketing health costs, teachers who haven't had general raises in two years and the need to update technology in classes and offices.

While we were among the cringers, we allowed that if Dr. Berger didn't seek all he could get for a system he was hired to revamp, no one else would.

But we saw a different role for school board members. We said they should approach the budget with sensitivity to both education and the county in general, especially in a time of fiscal strife. In past years, they would rubber-stamp fat requests and pass them on to the county executive and the County Council. It would then fall to the politicians to make the trims necessary to get school spending in line with the rest of the county budget.

And not incidentally, they would be the ones to take the heat from voters upset by the reductions. The superintendent and the board, whose members are volunteers appointed by the governor, could always blame budget cuts on the pols.

That's why the results of last Thursday's school board meeting only offered more cause to cringe. The board members announced they had concluded their scrutiny of the Berger budget request and were whittling it down by $1.8 million -- or one-third of one percent. If not technically a rubber-stamp job, the board's effort seems hardly to have been worth the bother.

Now the request goes to County Executive Roger Hayden for his "approval." But after laying off nearly 400 county workers and fTC closing libraries, the executive isn't likely to be in an approving mood when he gets a load of this budget. He'll probably do some serious slashing before sending it to the council for final passage.

Of course, in an ideal situation, the school system would get every penny it needs and then some. But the county's current situation is anything but ideal. Apparently that's no concern of the school board members, as indicated by the budget they've just dumped into the laps of the elected officials.

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