Straight talk on school budget

January 12, 1995

There seems to be a new protocol at work in discussions about the proposed education budget in Howard County this year. In the past, school and county officials practiced a form of coy brinkmanship to determine the level of funding the county would grant the school system. A budget would be proposed and both sides would argue almost theoretically over the consequences of possible cuts. The public would be pulled in alternate directions, but rarely to a clear conclusion about school needs and county resources. That budget theater seems closed this season, however. In its place is a more direct approach from both sides.

Superintendent Michael E. Hickey released a proposal this week that asks for a 5.6 percent increase in funding, while conceding that the system may have reached its limit in what it can seek from the county.

Such frankness is rare, but it did not come without a caveat. Dr. Hickey is asking that the county not tamper with funding for the system's administration, which he is holding at about $7 million. He promises to make cuts in that area in future years.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker is no less emphatic: Hampered by a slower economic recovery than anticipated, there is no way the county can afford Dr. Hickey's proposed $229.8 million budget. That would mean giving the school system $12 million more than last year -- even though county officials are expecting overall revenues to increase by only $10 million.

Mr. Ecker, a former county school financial officer, has been tough in matters regarding education and money in the past. But unlike before, he now has allies in his corner with a new Republican majority on the Howard County Council. Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga concurs that the revenue projections give the county little leeway to favor the school system. The chances are good that all employees, including those working for the schools, will have to forgo a salary raise next fiscal year. Dr. Hickey wisely omitted any pay increase in his budget message.

While it is still possible that the principals will return to the play-acting that characterized past budget preparations, it is refreshing to see both sides so far dealing with each other in a way that leaves little doubt about where everyone stands -- as well as about what Howard County can afford.

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