Brokering end to feud over school funding Developer proposes discussion group to find solutions

'We all want the same thing'

Effort would bridge gap between county, education interests

November 01, 1995|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The long-running feud over money between Howard County's government and schools may be quelled under a new effort launched by a prominent local businessman.

Donald Manekin, senior vice president and partner of Manekin Corp., quietly has been gathering support among public officials and community leaders for the creation of a countywide "vehicle for dialogue" on education funding.

The idea is still in its formative stages but likely would involve regular, noncombative discussions and planning sessions among representatives of the schools, county executive's office, County Council, business community, parents and teachers. A consultant has been selected to facilitate discussions.

"I think that if we can get everyone to sit down in a room together, we can really work things out and plan for the future," Mr. Manekin said. "We have very bright people, all of whom have the same interest in keeping a high quality school system.

"We shouldn't have to fight over the budget when we all want the same thing," said Mr. Manekin, whose company is one of the county's largest developers and commercial landlords.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, council Chairman Charles C. Feaga and county school board members have said they'll join the effort, and Mr. Manekin is to meet this month with the remaining members of the County Council.

"We are more than willing to try to build a better relationship with our county government," Susan Cook, chairwoman of the school board, told Mr. Manekin after he presented his idea to the board last week.

The attempt to improve relations comes on the heels of the county's most bitter budget debate in years -- one that has shown signs of continuing.

Last spring, the school board had to trim $4.4 million from its operating budget request and substantially reduce the size of new elementary and middle schools proposed in its capital budget.

That budget fight ended on a bitter note when the County Council tried to eliminate a school administrative position from the budget at the last minute, forcing the board to shuffle funds to keep the job.

And Mr. Ecker angered school board members this fall when he told school officials that the county must hold future school funding increases to no more than a state-mandated minimum to keep up with enrollment growth.

But school and county officials say they realize they have to work together in the face of impending federal and state budget cuts.

The size of those cuts isn't known, but they are sure to have a substantial impact on county revenues next year and beyond.

"There's a conflict between the growth of the school system and the financial demands that creates and the corresponding growth of needs outside the educational venue," Dr. Hickey said. "This is a particular effort this year -- and hopefully from this year on -- to cooperatively pursue areas of mutual interest."

Agreed Mr. Ecker: "I think it is tremendous. We should all get together."

Mr. Manekin laid out several goals for the group, including coordinating fiscal planning and forecasts, and looking at ways to reduce costs without harming education.

"I'm amazed that this hasn't been tried before. It seems to me that this is the way to get results," Mr. Manekin said. "You get the people in face to face and figure out together what to do."

The first meeting of the still-untitled group will not be scheduled until it is determined who will be involved, Mr. Manekin said. He told the school board that he'd like to keep the group "as small as humanly possible" while including "parties with the greatest vested interest."

The county's PTA Council has not been asked to participate, but its leader said it hopes to join the discussions.

"We need some coalition-building in this county," said Judy Butler, the council's president. "We have a good system here, and I think that everyone wants to keep it that way. It's time we work together to do that."

Education funding issues will be discussed from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Wilde Lake High School, at River Hill on Route 108 in Clarksville, at a forum sponsored by the county PTA Council and the League of Women Voters of Howard County. County and school officials, including Mr. Ecker, Dr. Hickey and Ms. Cook, are scheduled to attend.

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