Schools or Roads? No Need to Fight

COMMENT

April 17, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

Let's check your political reflexes:

State legislators have surprised everyone and all but handed over a $9.3 million windfall for school construction in Howard County. Some school officials are understandably beside themselves with glee.

But before the check arrives, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker says "whoa" and points out that he intends to use the extra dollars for road projects.

Once again, it appears that county officials are about to draw the battle lines and it's time for all good voters to decide whose army we're signing up with.

For my part, I was at first exasperated to learn that Mr. Ecker appeared to be throwing a wet blanket on the good fortune of the county schools. What is it about this guy that he won't give an inch more than he has to on anything regarding education? I thought.

I was prepared to write another piece in support of Howard County's superlative schools and questioning the wisdom of a politician who would dare take needed resources from the system.

In other words, my reflexes were to kick butt.

Thank goodness, cooler heads prevailed; it seems this time warfare may not be warranted.

In a rare display of accord, Superintendent Michael Hickey agrees with Mr. Ecker that the new state funds earmarked for school construction give the county an opportunity to divert county money to other priorities.

"The county is clearly entitled to use at least some or all of [the $9.3 million] for other county needs," Mr. Hickey agrees.

Mr. Ecker had already allotted for school construction an amount similar to what the state says it is now willing to contribute.

That means that Mr. Ecker can amend his proposed capital budget, using the state money for schools and diverting the previously allotted county money to roads. Mr. Ecker said when he unveiled his capital budget last month that this was what he intended to do if the opportunity presented itself.

Mr. Hickey's agreement that this is just and expected takes the wind out of any pitched battle between pro- and anti-school forces over this money. That's not to say that the sabers are all put away. We are, after all, talking about politics, a blood sport that can easily overshadow issues of fair play.

Del. Virginia M. Thomas, a District 13A Democrat who is running for the state Senate, has made it clear that she considers the windfall from the legislature to be sacrosanct.

Ms. Thomas says she is merely waiting for the state Board of Public Works to sign off on the funding, and then let no one think about using it for anything other than schools.

"I'm not fighting for school construction funds to see them put into roads," she said.

Furthermore, the money that Mr. Ecker has already proposed for school projects should be diverted to renovating older schools in Howard County, she said.

Ms. Thomas had already fought unsuccessfully this year to have the legislature allow Howard County to use half of its revenues from excise taxes to improve older schools. She is unlikely to acquiesce to Mr. Ecker on this, with or without the school superintendent's support.

Meanwhile, County Council and school board members who might be tempted to side with Ms. Thomas may find it more difficult to embrace this battle. They have another fight on their hands over Mr. Ecker's decision to shave $1.26 million from the funds school officials wanted to complete the construction of a new eastern high school.

Waging an additional battle over the $9.3 million could prove counterproductive, especially since it was understood that this scenario might unfold if the state money became available. Some, of course, could argue that they never challenged what Mr. Ecker intended to do with a windfall because no one thought the money would materialize.

Still, as much as some may try to paint Mr. Ecker as the evil prince of anti-education, depriving school children of sustenance, it isn't so. The school system remains by far the main beneficiary of capital funding in this county.

And while the county executive's tightfistedness toward the schools can sometimes be faulted, in this instance, his capital budget juggling appears sound.

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

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