School Board's Budget End-Around

June 26, 1995

Just two years ago, after teacher Ronald Price was arrested for sexually abusing students, Anne Arundel County school officials were exposed for shocking negligence in tracking and responding to cases of teacher misconduct.

They paid consultant Alan I. Baron $100,000 to tell them how to get their act together, and promised state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick they would heed his suggestions. So it is difficult to fault the school board for fighting to maintain three positions that Mr. Baron recommended specifically to handle child abuse issues. Enough time has gone by that many residents have forgotten not only how dangerously lax was the school system, but that the need for reform and vigilance about handling teacher misconduct continues.

Nonetheless, the board stepped way out of line last week when, for the second year in a row, it defied the County Council's decision not to fill the Baron positions, this time for fiscal year 1996. The board voted to keep paying the three employees, plus an administrator to oversee discipline and safety, even though the schools will be in the red. The four salaries, plus other shortfalls, will cause a $1.5 million deficit in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The board is looking to shift money to cover the loss, but that's not the point.

Local government has a budget process that must be honored. Boards and departments submit requests to the county executive. The executive weighs the requests and submits a budget to the council. The council fine-tunes the executive's budget. School officials believe they best know their needs; so, no doubt, do the heads of every other department. But the final decision on spending rests with the council because it alone is responsible for the big picture.

Departments -- including the quasi-autonomous school board, which legally is doing nothing wrong by shifting money to pay for the Baron positions -- cannot simply thumb their noses at council decisions they don't like. The council must be respected as the final arbiter of public spending. Otherwise, citizens may as well not bother voicing their opinions at council budget hearings. The council may as well not review the school board's budget at all. And voters will find themselves looking in vain for elected officials who can be held accountable for how their money is being spent.

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