Legislators, schools vow to reconcile Hints of compromise emerge over audits, year-round education

'We're listening'

Delegation pledges effort to increase construction funds

January 07, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Striking a conciliatory tone, members of the Howard County legislative delegation pledged yesterday to work closely with the county school board on proposed bills that have rankled Howard educators.

At a joint morning meeting, delegation and board members also promised to work together to secure as much school construction funding as they can during the General Assembly's 1996 session, which begins Wednesday.

The move toward reconciliation between the school board and the delegation comes after an autumn in which members of the board repeatedly said they were "under attack" by proposed local bills, including legislation on performance audits and year-round education.

"Even though we have disagreed, we still make as our joint priority the betterment of this county, especially the continued high quality of the educational system," said Susan Cook, school board chairwoman, in an interview after yesterday's meeting.

"We're listening to each other and are able to continue to work together."

The two proposed bills that have sparked the most rancor among school board members involve year-round education and performance audits of the Howard school system. Neither bill has been approved by the local delegation, but members are expected to take them up this month in Annapolis.

A third bill, which would have overhauled the way board members are elected, was rejected by the delegation Wednesday night.

The board has opposed all three bills, and members of the delegation appeared to be listening to its concerns during yesterday's meeting.

For example, Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Republican representing Ellicott City and western Howard, said he wanted to delay consideration of his bill to allow the County Council to conduct performance audits of the school system.

"My thought is that we should wait to get down to Annapolis and see how the negotiations go" on the statewide performance audit bill proposed by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Mr. Flanagan said.

The board has said that the local bill and Mr. Taylor's would be redundant. His is expected to be a compromise of ideas from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, Maryland Association of Counties and the Public School Superintendents' Association of Maryland.

Board members also prefer the third-party, neutral audits espoused by Mr. Taylor's bill rather than Mr. Flanagan's proposal to allow the Howard County Council to use its own auditors.

Yesterday, Mr. Flanagan said he wanted to ensure that his bill "dovetails with the speaker's bill," while also being a "useful tool" for the county government. He asked to meet with school officials within the next two weeks to continue discussions on the proposal.

Of the year-round education bill, Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Republican representing Ellicott City and western Howard, said he also wants additional meetings with the board before deciding whether to pursue his proposal.

Mr. McCabe's bill would prohibit the board from approving a year-round calendar for county schools unless it had obtained approval from the voters in a public referendum.

The board -- which last month rejected the idea of Howard switching to year-round education -- opposes the bill because members believe that it attacks their authority over the school system. They fear it would set a precedent for residents to go to the polls to try to overrule such board decisions as redistricting.

Yesterday, Mr. McCabe asked the board to "give us a short briefing of where you are" on year-round education -- apparently leaving open the possibility that he might abandon the bill if he is satisfied that the idea of a year-round calendar has been killed for good.

But not all of yesterday's hourlong meeting was devoted to proposed local legislation.

Board members and legislators agreed that a high local priority for this year's session should be obtaining school construction money for the county.

The Interagency Committee for State Public School Construction already has awarded funding for next year for several big Howard projects, including the building of Ilchester Elementary School and Wilde Lake High School and the renovation of Oakland Mills Middle School.

But the school system likely will appeal to the state Board of Public Works this winter for funding for many other projects, including construction of a middle school in Fulton, an addition to Hammond High School and renovations of Dunloggin and Wilde Lake middle schools.

Members of the delegation pledged to continue to support the school system's efforts to secure more construction funds.

"Last year we got more than any county but the big three -- Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Baltimore County," said Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Republican representing east Columbia, Jessup, North Laurel, Fulton and portions of Elkridge. "We'll do everything we can to do that again this year."

The school board also asked the delegation to oppose three statewide education bills expected to come up during this year's session.

The bills involve changing some elements of how school systems conduct collective bargaining with teachers unions, altering the way county governments approve school budget requests and reducing counties' obligations to increase education spending to pay for pupil enrollment increases.

Members of the delegation generally appeared sympathetic to the board's request to oppose the bills, but no official positions were taken during the meeting.

A fourth local bill affecting education was not discussed during yesterday's meeting. If approved, the bill will give school board members a 50 percent raise, increasing their annual salary from $6,000 a year to $9,000 annually. The chairman would receive $10,000.

The board initially sought a 100 percent pay raise, but members accepted the delegation's compromise salary increase with little complaint. The board has not had a raise in 10 years.

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