Spinning away in Baltimore County

June 02, 1995

Let the spin begin.

Members of the Baltimore County Council say they lopped $4.4 million from the proposed county school budget because education officials have not been "accountable" for their spending practices. The devil made them do it -- i.e., Superintendent Stuart Berger. And just so the voters understand who's really to blame here, the councilmen take pains to point out that the reduction, the largest in a county school budget in 19 years, is aimed at a top-heavy administration and not at students.

Dr. Berger and school board president Paul Cunningham respond by saying the council's cut will unavoidably hit classrooms, causing 50 fewer teachers to be hired than previously planned. School officials' message to the public, then, is that the council members should take the heat because their fingerprints are on the budget ax.

County residents can be forgiven if all this spinning has left them a bit dizzy.

While hostility between county pols and school officials is nothing new, the ill will between Towson and Greenwood has hit a recent low. The difference this time around appears to be a new council with little patience for a school administration that is sometimes guilty of haughtiness.

There's more to it than the usual Berger-bashing, though. Council members are under increasing pressure from citizens to take care of the aging infrastructure of the county's Beltway communities. They also have been challenged by County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger to do something to lower local closing costs.

These steps and many others like them can't be taken unless certain cuts are made in the Baltimore County budget. The school budget of more than $600 million, about half of the county's overall spending plan, is an irresistibly large target to the councilmen, especially when they perceive that school officials are being "unaccountable."

The councilmen are right to be meticulous fiscal guardians; it's probably their most important task. Still, this particular action has the unmistakable whiff of ego-driven payback.

The accountability of the school system, after all, is on daily display throughout the county. Does the system do a good job for its 100,000 students? Are parents satisfied with the education their children are receiving?

The politicians would do well to answer such questions before they start talking about accountability.

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