School Board Finds Money In The Sofa

COMMENT

October 17, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

News that the Howard County Board of Education has discovered, a month and a half into the school year, enough money to hire 8.5 teachers brings to my mind those times I have dug beneath the cushions of my couch and found some loose change.

In the school system's case, however, the couch must have been tremendous; the bounty turned out to be about $200,000.

Wouldn't you like to be around the next time school officials do some spring -- in this case fall -- cleaning? I'd volunteer to be a part of that, rake and large lawn bag in hand.

Leave it to school officials to do the very thing to instill confidence among us citizens. We sit, mouths agape, in anticipation of the next big surprise.

I, for one, was beginning to feel sorry for all those classroom teachers who were overburdened by having too many kids in the same room because there weren't enough teachers to go around.

I should have had more faith. Everybody knows that that old winter coat that's been sitting in moth balls, not to mention that box in the basement that hasn't been opened since the last time you moved, is a treasure trove waiting to be plundered.

School officials say the source of their misplaced loot -- which they prefer to call a savings -- was a minor budgeting glitch uncovered by a "routine budget analysis."

It seems that school officials ended up hiring some teachers later than was originally expected. Also, a lot of those teachers were hired at lower pay rates than everyone thought.

I would love to have school officials balancing my check book. Of course, to mistakenly set aside $200,000 in my household budget for a year would not only be impossible, but would produce noticeable deficiencies -- namely starvation and homelessness. But then I'm not working with the $203 million operating budget the school system is.

Despite the obvious good news of being able to hire more teachers, I find the circumstances behind this unsettling. One wonders what other funds officials might find if they tried hard enough. It's reminiscent of the way that Congress tosses around money. A million here, a million there and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

I consider myself a big supporter of public schools everywhere, particularly the ones to which I send my kids. But school officials are making the job of arguing their case ever more difficult. Not only have these officials to date been prone to being alarmist about the impact of local budget cuts, now I have to factor in the possibility that they may have extra funds just lying about.

By the way, what is half a teacher when school officials refer to hiring 8.5 people? Are we talking about an undersized person or just someone with less than a full commitment to the job?

But I digress. Besides the found money, other riches bestowed on the system of late include a $1.4 million windfall, courtesy of a 9 percent increase in county property tax revenue. That was not due to a school system glitch. Howard County's own conservative estimate of revenues brought that about. At least we had some previous inkling it might happen.

Even though school officials are full of dubious surprises, they often do put the funds to good use. They have decided, for instance, to use a large portion of the $1.4 million to buy textbooks and equipment for older schools, which are unable to keep pace with the latest technology and information that new schools receive when they open.

That's a good use of resources. But then I suspect it takes a lot of money -- not to mention good teachers and supportive parents -- to put Howard County at the top of the list of good school systems in Maryland.

I just wish school officials were a little more stringent in their accounting methods. Surprises of the magnitude we've witnessed recently leave one wondering.

Loose change found under a couch cushion is one thing. But $200,000? Come on.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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