Misjudgment in Towson

June 06, 1995

The Baltimore County school system is a top-heavy mess. So say the members of the County Council, who have cut $4.4 million from the 1995-96 education budget with the intent of trimming what they claim is a bloated bureaucracy.

However, the most recent state figures suggest that the councilmen have made a gross misjudgment. The statistics from the State Department of Education show that Baltimore County ranks third from the bottom in dollars devoted to administrative costs. Twenty-one of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions spend more on their central operations than does Baltimore County. Only Allegany and Harford counties spend less.

At the same time, Baltimore County ranks fifth (from the top, that is) in total cost per pupil.

Certainly, in a school budget of $600 million, there is bound to be some waste. But the state numbers indicate the waste is not so immense as the councilmen would have the public believe.

Other factors seem to have driven the council members to make the deepest school budget cut in 19 years. For one, many of them don't like Superintendent Stuart Berger and some of his underlings for their supposedly haughty attitude toward the budget process. To be sure, the not-so-great communicators at Greenwood have hurt themselves at times by thumbing their noses at the pols, as when they implemented an early retirement plan for teachers over the council's objections. Consider this budget cut a form of payback from the council to Dr. Berger, for a series of real and imagined slights over three years. (Bashing the unpopular superintendent is usually a smart political tactic. Just ask County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger.)

Moreover, the trend among pols regionwide is to remove the kid gloves when handling school budgets. PTAs might scream over reductions, but elected officials appear now to pay more heed to the chorus of the anti-tax, anti-spending crowd who believe education absorbs too much of the public dollar. The results of the 1994 elections and the budget-slashing ways of the Republican Congress in Washington further embolden the local pols.

Baltimore County councilmen should see their main task as making sure every budget dollar counts, particularly when their aging subdivision has so many important needs. But they goofed in taking this money from the school budget and then adding the spin that the action won't affect the classrooms. It will, though. And their fingerprints are all over the budget ax.

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