Berger Aims High Again

January 27, 1994

We would never call Baltimore County school Superintendent Stuart Berger a "liar." Nor would we say his pants are on fire. The childish name-calling, we'll leave to other people.

All the same, we will dispute a comment he made when he presented his fiscal 1995 budget to the county school board Tuesday night. Last year's proposal, he said, "attempted to walk a careful line between the needs of students and the fiscal ability of the county to meet those needs."

Truth to tell, Dr. Berger aimed for the moon with his fiscal 1994 budget proposal, which came with an 11.7 percent increase. His timing couldn't have been worse either, as the county government was $32 million in the red and planning to lay off hundreds of workers. Not surprisingly, County Executive Roger Hayden cut $21 million from the Berger budget, most of the reduction wiping out a proposed raise for teachers.

This year, Dr. Berger aims high again -- and, in a switch, admits as much. He has submitted a budget of $572 million, or 11.2 percent higher than last year's. After funding from the state and federal governments and other sources is subtracted, the county's contribution would be $412 million, for an increase of $46 million, or 12.6 percent.

The hedging language in parts of Dr. Berger's statement to the board suggests he knows full well there's some fat in this budget. We doubt, for example, that county officials will OK teacher raises as high as 6 percent or funds to improve the administration's information management system, despite the county's rosier economic picture.

Of greater importance are the students at the bottom of the socio-economic scale. Dr. Berger wants to provide for them by funneling a total of $5.2 million to 50 elementary and middle schools, mostly on the east and wide sides, where 30 to 60 percent of the pupils are on free or reduced-price meals. Each school would use the money for programs to enhance student performance. Government leaders might find it hard to fight what could be a needed investment in the future of not just the school system but the county itself.

Now the school board must do what it has been loath to do in the past -- make judicious cuts in the superintendent's budget. If it does its usual rubber-stamp act, the pruning would be left to Mr. Hayden. Parts of the budget need to go. Other items, though, deserve better treatment than they will get if the proposal goes to the executive with no apparent input or interest from the school board.

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