The Business of Good Schools HOWARD COUNTY

May 19, 1993

There is little doubt that the relationship between Howar County Executive Charles Ecker and the county's top educators has been strained of late. Most recently, officials of the administration and school system have locked horns over the issue of school construction costs.

So, it is good to see the county Chamber of Commerce willing to step into the fray and act as mediator. The business organization has agreed to set up a task force to look at school construction costs, and other education spending.

Normally, we might be skeptical that the chamber could act in an impartial manner when it comes to county school spending. Certainly, the organization representing business interests in the county would lean toward a strategy that would stop short of raising taxes on its members. In this case, however, our skepticism is tempered by statements from chamber officials acknowledging that they understand what is at stake here.

Howard County has one of the best school districts in Maryland. The pressure to protect that status is great.

"The business community has an interest in making sure that (the school system's quality) is protected," said William Munn, the chamber's president. "The first thing companies look at when deciding to move or set up new operations is the quality of the school system and the stability of local taxes."

Those competing interests -- stable taxes and superior schools -- will be the great leveler in the debate.

School officials have estimated that the county will need to spend about $250 million on new construction and renovations over the next decade. Howard's student enrollment is expected to grow by an average of 1,500 students a year. Among Baltimore area jurisdictions, only Baltimore County is expected to grow faster, and that jurisdiction seems to be embroiled in an even more fractious public debate about future school needs.

In Howard, Mr. Ecker wants the school system to cut construction costs by 10 percent annually. No one seems to know whether that request is reasonable.

We hope the chamber can cast an impartial light on such questions.

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