The New Chuck Ecker?

March 01, 1994

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has the ball in his court, now that school officials have lobbed a $221.8 million operating budget his way. The proposed spending plan for next year will test Mr. Ecker's fiscal and political dexterity during an election year that will pit the competing interests of tax conservatives against pro-school liberals.

Already, Mr. Ecker is softening the austere stranglehold he placed on school funding for most of his first term. Mr. Ecker says now that the county's financial picture has improved somewhat, he is prepared to consider a school budget that goes beyond a mere maintenance of effort.

Mr. Ecker wasn't specific, but school officials have targeted the bulk of new spending toward hiring new teachers to handle an expected 1,600 additional students next year. School officials hope not to increase class size. They have also requested more than $1 million to renovate and buy equipment for older schools. A 3 percent salary increase for teachers, not counting longevity increases, is part of the package as well.

Where Mr. Ecker is holding a taut line, at least for now, is not with the school operating budget, but with its proposal for capital spending. The executive wants to see substantial cuts in the proposed $300 million officials say is needed to build new schools over the next decade.

Mr. Ecker hopes to accomplish savings by moving to a year-round school calendar in which the system could accommodate more students in fewer schools. He has even suggested the improbable: that the school system have its own taxing authority, relieving the executive and council from the task -- and the fallout -- of cutting school funds or raising taxes.

Those are radical proposals for someone who professes to be a conservative. But then Mr. Ecker has been an enigma when it comes to school funding. Once an associate school superintendent, Mr. Ecker used his fiscal knowledge of the school system budget to savage it during his first two years in office. He is also a former Democrat, who turned to the GOP expressly to run for county executive in 1990. His track record has been good, but he is clearly refashioning himself to run for re-election. Look for a slightly revised Chuck Ecker in the coming months, playing to as many audiences as he can before Election Day.

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