Ecker and Hickey argue about debt School construction conflict continues

November 18, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The school construction conflict between County Executive Charles I. Ecker and his former boss, School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, is heating up again.

Mr. Ecker is worried about the county's mounting long-term debt -- it has more than doubled in five years -- and wants the school system to help reduce it by cutting construction costs 10 percent to 20 percent.

Mr. Hickey says the school system already is making a considerable sacrifice by reducing construction projects in the proposed school budget 8.5 percent from previous estimates.

"I don't know if we'll ever meet his standards," Mr. Hickey said of the county executive. "Our standards were very fine for him when he was in the school system" as deputy superintendent in charge of finance and operations.

Prior to 1991, however, the county had surpluses of millions of dollars each year. In 1991, Mr. Ecker's first as executive, the county had a $3 million deficit.

Meanwhile, the county's long-term debt has grown from $135 million in 1989 to $312 million today, in part because the county has had to pick up some school construction costs formerly paid by the state.

"We can cut the expense of buildings if we have less square feet," Mr. Ecker said.

Mr. Ecker made the same argument and the same request earlier this year during County Council deliberations on his capital budget proposals for fiscal 1994. The fiscal year began July 1.

"I asked the school system to voluntarily cut 10 to 20 percent in construction costs," he said. When that did not happen, he unilaterally cut 10 percent from projects on which bids have not yet been received, Mr. Ecker said. "I don't know if they've continued that practice or not," he said.

Mr. Hickey said the school board is the best judge of how to keep construction costs down.

"All he has to do is read our proposed [fiscal 1995] budget," Mr. Hickey said. "You don't reduce the cost of a building without reducing square feet. It is the Board of Education's job, not the county executive's, to set the educational specifications for schools."

In the current fiscal year, school construction costs of $37.8 million account for 47 percent of the county's $81 million capital budget. To pay for that school construction, the state is providing $8.6 million, transfer taxes are contributing $4.1 million and the county is putting up $25.1 million.

Because of escalating costs and reduced aid, the county needs to look at alternatives to new school construction, such as year-round schools, increased class sizes and double sessions, Mr. Ecker said.

"In 10 to 12 years, we'll be closing some schools" due to predicted drops in enrollment, he said.

But Mr. Hickey said the school system is getting "a tide of reaction -- primarily negative" from a survey it is conducting on all-year schools and increased class-sizes. Double sessions, to his knowledge, have never been used on more than a temporary basis.

The local Chamber of Commerce appeared to support the county executive yesterday when it issued a "white paper" calling for exploration of alternatives such as year-round schools as a way of dealing with school construction costs. The chamber said construction costs are a "real strain on the tax revenue from local sources."

Earlier this month, Mr. Ecker sent the chamber's educational task force a comparison of how the county's per-pupil cost for school construction compares with other jurisdictions.

The comparisons showed that Howard is spending more than the state average and considerably more than Frederick and Carroll counties -- 93 percent more than Frederick and 28 percent more than Carroll.

Mr. Hickey argues that the higher spending is justified.

"Frederick and Carroll are not growing at the same rate we are," he said. "The school system did not create the growth in Howard County, it is responding to it."

And the county schools are responding well, by nearly everyone's measure.

In its white paper, the chamber noted the county school system is "one of the best, if not the best, in Maryland." The school system is a key factor in promoting economic development in the county, the chamber said.

"We get a consistently good product," Mr. Hickey said.

"I am not willing, and I don't think the county is willing, to pay the educational price" that could occur as a result of deep cuts in school construction money, Mr. Hickey said.

Mr. Ecker, however, contends that the school system could economize on construction without hurting educational quality.

"Frederick and Carroll [counties] had high scores too," Mr. Ecker said. "And they don't spend as much on school construction. I don't think there is any direct correlation between the size of the building and educational achievement. . . . It's something that should be investigated."

But Mr. Hickey said the school system already is making every effort to reduce construction costs without sacrificing quality.

He said capital needs are high now but will average 40 percent or less of the county's capital spending in the long-term, which is the target he said Mr. Ecker gave the school system.

"I hope we're not going to get into a battle royal over this," Mr. Hickey said. "We've accommodated [the executive] in the past couple of years, deferring projects and spreading out big projects, and were chewed out by the County Council because we deferred $15 million to help him. We've really gone more than half-way. I expect he will do the same for us."

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