Passing the Buck on School Budget

January 25, 1994

Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's $214 million budget proposal for fiscal 1995 appears, on the surface at least, to be a measured response to the system's growing student enrollment and the need to upgrade older school buildings.

By increasing spending by 4.3 percent, Mr. Hickey is promising to hire more teachers to reduce class size and to buy state-of-the-art equipment to replace antiquated technology. His budget plays to a substantial constituency in education-minded Howard, support from which he will need to realize his vision. As always, the upshot will come weeks from now, after the budget goes to County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who in the past has held the school system to a more austere standard.

Mr. Ecker has already drawn a line in the sand, declaring in his recent State of the County address that the school system had best look to other means of coping with its expanding pupil population. His ideas include year-round schools and giving the school system its own taxing authority. The former has little public support; the latter won't occur in the foreseeable future.

But Mr. Ecker continues to make the points that the county budget is overburdened by the debt created to build new schools, and that school board members need to be held more accountable to voters for their spending decisions. Mr. Ecker's approach to school funding may appeal to those who feel education drains too much of the local budget, but it is a short-sighted brand of leadership.

Mr. Ecker seems to believe that shifting taxing authority to the Board of Education would clarify the villain on school spending.

But the executive's plan would only further divide voters between pro- and anti-school forces, without any of the checks and balances inherent in the current system of shared responsibility. The result could be higher taxes during times of growth, and bare-bones schools as the county's population ages.

When Mr. Ecker considers how to respond to Mr. Hickey's budget proposal this year, he should realize that he will be judged on his ability to balance the competing interests of schools and other services. Passing the buck, though, makes for a poor campaign slogan.

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