Kid Fanatics vs. Fiscal Reality

March 07, 1995

"No, I don't remember anybody around the table saying, 'Let's cut the budget.' " So said Baltimore County school board member Dunbar Brooks, referring to the board's consideration of Superintendent Stuart Berger's proposed budget of $599.2 million for fiscal 1996. Other members confirmed that nary a red pencil defaced the Berger budget.

Granted, the board's annual custom is to pass the superintendent's proposal unmarked to the county executive, but this represents a new low in rubber-stampism. How can board members not even blink at a budget that asks the county to spend $36 million more on the school system when the government's entire amount of discretionary money for next year is $37 million?

We're "fanatics for kids," say board members. Yeah, who isn't? The problem is that local elected officials are legally bound to be fanatics for a balanced budget. And there's no way the budget can be balanced when the school board comes in with such a fat request, when the local government is staring at a projected deficit of $15 million for next year, when Baltimore County has the third-slowest rate of growth in income tax collections among Maryland's 24 jurisdictions.

Year after year, this tired drama plays on. Education officials request a large budget increase in the name of improving the schools. The executive, having warned of constraints on the general fund, calls the request unacceptable. The board ultimately gets an increase -- generally not as large as had been sought -- but only after incurring the ill will of elected officials who must answer to voters for the budget that emerges in late spring.

The participants in this exercise can't continue as adversaries. Their goal is a common one: The best education system the county can afford. They should meet regularly -- weeks before the budget submission -- to establish needs, desires and fiscal limitations. The current board has numerous members who could contribute a lot to such talks; also, in C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the county has an executive who usually makes a good-faith effort to be flexible and reasonable.

Undeniably, the school system has important needs, and it is the role of the superintendent and the Board of Education to be the system's staunch advocates. However, it does not benefit their reputations as responsible public officials to continue their blithe ignorance of the fiscal realities that dictate conditions not just for the schools but for the rest of Baltimore County as well.

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