The County Council's Republican majority flexed its muscles Friday by taking control of the school budget -- prompting school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey to declare that council-school relations are at "an all-time low."
In terms of spending, the change was minuscule -- a shift of $85,951 from one category to another in the school board's total operating budget of $230 million. But in terms of power, the change was huge -- putting the board on notice that council Republicans can dictate the details of the school system's jTC budget whenever they choose.
The power play came Friday as the council gave final approval to the county's capital and operating budgets and set the property tax rate for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The $95.7 million capital budget and $328.5 million operating budget approved Friday were virtually unchanged from the proposals sent to the council by County Executive Charles I. Ecker in April.
The property tax rate remains unchanged at $2.59 per $100 of assessed value, but property owners will be paying more on average this year because of increases in assessed value. The owner of a $200,000 house will pay about $104 more in taxes this year than last -- bringing the property tax bill to $2,176.
In addition, residents living in the Metropolitan Fire District will be paying about $20 more this year because of a 2-cent increase in the Metropolitan District Fire Tax. The new tax is 24 cents per $100 of assessed value.
The council made two minor changes in Mr. Ecker's budget but did not cut it.
It put $50,000 in a fire service reserve fund rather than pay for a part-time physician to supervise emergency service medical technicians. Council members said they needed more time to study the issue and could fund the position later, using the money from the reserve fund.
It was the second change -- shifting school funds, approved by a 3-2 vote along party lines -- that caused the pyrotechnics.
Councilman Darrel Drown of Ellicott City ignited the fire when he suggested cutting $85,951 from the administrative portion of the school budget and adding that amount to its instruction portion.
It is an easy shift to make, Mr. Drown told the council, because there would be a vacancy soon in the post of high schools instructional director.
Mr. Drown said he knew that Superintendent Hickey had asked the council to wait until next year to chop administrative positions, but because of the vacancy, "now is as good a time as any."
Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray of East Columbia, became livid, calling the Republican's suggestion a "surprise attack."
The council had agreed two days earlier to give the school board discretion as to how to spend its budget, Mr. Gray said. There was "no discussion, no amendment, no recommendation, no feedback" on Mr. Drown's proposal before it was proposed Friday, Mr. Gray said.
Democratic Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung of West Columbia also objected, saying that Mr. Drown was proposing a major policy change that was an "encroachment" into matters usually reserved for the school board.
Ms. Lorsung said she also believes that the school system's administrative budget needs to be "cut a whole lot," but not this year. The council had pledged not to alter the amounts within various school budget categories, "and I'm not willing to back off from that," Ms. Lorsung said.
Mr. Drown said council members shouldn't be surprised by his proposal since he has been talking about cutting school administrative personnel for months. "It's definitely not a sneak attack," he said. "By law, we have the right to shift categories."
His Republican colleague, Council Chairman C. Charles Feaga of West Friendship, agreed, calling Mr. Drown's action a way of getting the school board's attention.
"I didn't see any commitment from the school board" to reduce administrative positions this year, he said. "We do have to answer to taxpayers."
Council bylaws forbid introduction of last-minute amendments from the floor unless approved by four council members.
But Mr. Drown's amendment -- still unwritten at the time it was introduced -- was deemed exempt from that bylaw by the council majority.
Using a bit of creative logic, their reasoning was this: It was an amendment to an amendment rather than simply an amendment, and so the bylaw did not apply.
Dr. Hickey and school board Chairwoman Susan J. Cook, who were not present at the council session, later expressed outrage.
"Darrel's action was a spiteful, personal power play," Dr. Hickey said. "I will cut the $86,000, but I will not cut that position [of high school instructional director] because I need it."
Three weeks ago, parents at a meeting of the PTA council pleaded with Dr. Hickey not to cut the instructional director position when it becomes vacant, saying it is vital with two new high schools coming on line.