School Boards and the Bottom Line

June 08, 1995

On the Board of Education in Baltimore County sits a college dean, a professor, three attorneys, a couple of corporate executives, a demographer as well as a few who've made their mark in various civic work. To hear the County Council there tell it, however, they are the gang that couldn't add straight.

The Baltimore County Council recently delivered the largest cut to a county education budget in 20 years, $4.4 million. The council charged that school officials, with acquiescence of the aforementioned board, had misused previous allocations to beef the administration, even creating a "slush fund" to do so. Baltimore County's school board shouldn't feel insulted. Politicians accusing school officials of fiscal irresponsibility seems the norm these days.

* In Howard County, the council chairman took the unprecedented step of trying to eliminate a specific position, director of high schools, which he deemed expendable over the objection of the superintendent.

* In Harford County, Executive Eileen Rehrmann created an oversight committee to examine school spending, in part to build confidence for school support in an anti-tax atmosphere.

* In Carroll County, even as the Board of Commissioners raised the piggyback income tax to build schools, they indicated little patience with the annual increases to operate them.

The tone implicit in everything from school finance debates to board appointments is that schools are run by well-meaning folks who couldn't find the bottom line with a search light. Maryland's system cultivates this tension by design. Its county-based school systems, among the largest in the U.S., create certain efficiencies, but also must serve diverse needs that not all

sectors of a county agree upon. The lack of their own taxing authority is a double-edged sword for Maryland school systems, too: They have neither the responsibility nor the power to raise revenues to fund their labor-intensive operations.

Some school board members have espoused the view that their charge is to fight for education and to let the politicians sort out the money. That's unfortunate. If school boards don't demand operating efficiencies as part of their mandate, they harm, rather than help, education by eroding public and political support.

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