'Power and money and control' School systems are not financial free agents.

March 06, 1996

THOMAS TWOMBLY, a member of the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, complains that County Executive John G. Gary's effort to make the school system financially accountable to elected officials is "about power and money and control." It is. It's about giving the elected leaders more authority over where that money goes.

The education lobby thinks there's something wrong with that; that school systems should be financial free agents. But they are not free agents because they don't raise their own taxes. Like every other department in local government, the Board of Education is funded by taxes raised by the executive and County Council. Ultimately these elected officials -- not the school superintendent or school board -- are answerable to the public for how much tax they spend on schools and whether those funds are used properly.

What frustrates elected county leaders is that they are being held accountable for spending they can't control due to state laws that give school systems too much freedom to move money around after county budgets have been set. The point is not that elected leaders are always right, but that taxpayers have no one to hold responsible for school spending -- 60 percent of the county budget in Anne Arundel -- when school officials who are unelected and hold no taxing authority have the final say.

This year, House Speaker Casper Taylor sponsored state legislation to curb (but not eliminate) school systems' spending powers and was met with violent opposition from school boards. Mr. Gary's far less drastic request -- that the school board update the council twice a year on how it is spending its money -- is eliciting similar vehemence from the local education lobby, which sees it as a step toward wholesale takeover of education by politicians.

Such fears are ridiculous. Public support for a semi-autonomous school system is extremely strong; most elected leaders respect that. But the notion that school systems exist in some pure world of their own, far removed from government and politics, must be put to rest. The government does affect education policy to the ** extent that some policies involve money. As long as elected leaders control the purse strings, they must control where school funds go. If they don't, taxpayers can't.

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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