Ending the school budget shell game Taylor's bill: House speaker wants to restore fiscal accountability to education.

January 19, 1996

IN ANNE ARUNDEL County last spring, County Council members decided they couldn't justify an experimental French program for kindergartners when other classrooms were without adequate, up-to-date books or copy paper. Astoundingly, due to quirkly laws governing the relationship between lawmakers who control the government purse strings and a semi-autonomous Board of Education, the program -- known as French immersion -- is alive and well in Anne Arundel.

No sooner had the council adopted a school spending plan, sans French immersion, than the school board moved forward with it anyway, using money lawmakers had earmarked for other educational needs. Had any other department of county government so defied lawmakers, heads would have rolled. However, state laws that attempt to remove public education from the demagoguery of local politics have given school systems the power to spend unlike any other local agency. Although well-intentioned, the laws have created school systems that are unaccountable to taxpayers. Local governments throughout Maryland, including all the Baltimore area counties, have said throughout the cash-strapped '90s that they are being held responsible for spending they can't control. Their pleas have gone unanswered -- until now.

As the General Assembly opened last week, House Speaker Casper Taylor came to their aid with legislation that, while leaving school systems semi-autonomous, curbs their ability to play around with funds for instruction after local commissioners or councils have set their budgets. (His proposal is not as far-reaching as a line-item veto, which would have usurped too much control from boards of education.)

Under Mr. Taylor's bill, school board members could not use money set aside for microscopes to give teachers a raise -- at least not without permission from the commissioners or council. If they want to do so, they would have to justify their request in writing.

About half of all taxes collected by the counties wind up in public school classrooms. Taxpayers deserve a greater say over how that money is spent. They will have that only when the people who are elected to control the purse strings are truly accountable. The speaker's legislation provides that accountability.

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