School Boards: Loose with a Buck?

June 08, 1995

Can local school boards be trusted to spend a buck? Not if you believe the budget deliberations that just concluded in various Maryland counties.

The Baltimore County County took the biggest hack at the education budget in 20 years, contending that too much was being spent to fatten the central administration. Harford

County's executive formed a community group to scrutinize school spending. The leader of the Howard County Council tried to make an end-run around the school superintendent and cut out the director of high schools, even though such micro-management has traditionally been eschewed by the council. Politicians in Prince George's and Wicomico counties bickered with school officials over meeting the state's minimum "maintenance of effort" law.

Are Maryland's schools wasteful? Blanket judgments are hard to make. In the boards' collective defense, per-pupil spending is just a tick above the national average. On teacher salaries, Maryland averages $39,500, making it one of the few eastern states to fall below its regional median. On the other hand, spending in Maryland had been growing faster than the national rate while its graduation rate had not -- though that gap is narrowing.

Comparisons of administrative spending in education are harder come by because states run their schools so differently. By one Census Bureau measure, Maryland has among the lowest costs for general administration, less than half as much as similarly sized states.

Maryland's large county-based school systems foster certain efficiencies. (Pennsylvania, for instance, has twice as many school boards as Maryland has school board members.)

Maryland's set-up also cultivates certain tensions. Its sprawling systems serve diverse economic constituencies. Moreover, the metropolitan counties all include pockets of new development where schools are a big deal and established areas where tax increases are a bigger deal.

Whatever their inherent systemic burdens, Maryland's school boards must make the kind of fiscal transformation being contemplated by legislative bodies. Because they know education best, they are best suited to implement ways to run the system more frugally. The old mindset that the school board's duty is to fight for education money and to let the politicians worry about the bills belongs in the dustbin. When school boards complain they are being asked to do more with less, the rest of the community says, "Welcome to the club."

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