A school board in denial

March 07, 1995

Baltimore County school board vice-president Calvin Disney expressed understandable anger last week when he criticized politicians who campaign as education advocates but, once in office, rarely budget the public funds that might reflect their stated commitment to academics.

Still, this frustration on the part of Mr. Disney and other board members does not condone their rubber-stamping of Superintendent Stuart Berger's $599.2 million budget request for fiscal 1996 -- a budget that asks the county to spend $36 million more on the school system than it did last year, or only $1 million less than the government's entire amount of discretionary money for next year.

Such irresponsible denial of local fiscal reality is nothing new to a school board whose annual custom has been to approve huge budgets with no apparent consideration of the county's wallet woes.

What makes this year's rubber-stamping more alarming is that the members never broached the possibility of cutting Dr. Berger's request by so much as a penny. This, at a time when Baltimore County is staring at a projected deficit of $15 million for next year and is slogging through a growth rate in income tax revenues that's the third-slowest among Maryland's 24 jurisdictions.

Cynics who have observed -- and participated in -- the yearly school budget tug-of-war say this is simply how the game is played: School officials come in high with their request and compromise later with elected officials on acceptable cuts. By June, when the County Council has passed the government's complete budget, the school system will get most of the major items it sought.

The cost of this process, however, is constant ill will and suspicion between Towson and Greenwood.

The process has to change. The common goal of school officials and local politicians must be the best educational system the county can afford. Rather than spend the weeks before the superintendent's budget submission by sending subtly threatening signals to one another, the two sides should meet regularly to establish needs, desires and fiscal limitations. Both the board and the government have numerous members who would be up to this task.

Board members are right to be staunch advocates of the school system and its needs. But they must recognize, too, that those needs have to be met within the context of a county budget that's a lot leaner than it used to be.

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