Ecker likely to deny full school funds Executive says he's '90 percent' sure he would take step

$6.6 million more needed

Hickey warns cuts would 'grievously impact instructions'

March 08, 1996|By DAN MORSE AND HOWARD LIBIT | DAN MORSE AND HOWARD LIBIT,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday he is all but certain he will not fully fund state-required increases for local education-an unprecedented move for Howard that could cost its schools more than $5 million.

"I would say there's a 90 percent chance I'm not going to make it," Mr. Ecker said.

Schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who is counting on the full funding to meet rapidly rising enrollment, said yesterday that such a cut would "grievously impact instruction."

"There's no way for us to come up with that money just in administration and central [office] services," said Dr. Hickey, who would not identify specific possible cuts.

Mr. Ecker previously has warned that the county might not meet the state requirements, but yesterday's pronouncement was by far his strongest statement.

It also sends a dire signal to Annapolis, where legislation to ease the school funding burden for local governments is in serious trouble.

That legislation relates to the state's maintenance-of-effort law, which requires counties to increase their education funding to keep pace with enrollment increases- or lose a portion of their state funding.

For the fiscal year that begins in July, Howard would have to provide an additional $6.6 million for schools - which under current state law would produce an additional $2.8 million in state funds.

Dr. Hickey said the schools' $240 million budget request was based on the assumption that Mr. Ecker would provide the $6.6 million in maintenance-of-effort funding.

"Chuck Decker] told us to build our budget based on maintenance-of-effort, and that's what we've done," Dr. Hickey said. "I assume Chuck [Ecker] will do everything possible to meet it."

But Mr. Ecker -- citing slower county revenue growth -- said yesterday he can spare only $4 million, or 60 percent of the $6.6 million. And that means Howard would lose the $2.8 million in funds from the state.

In Annapolis yesterday, the House Ways and Means Committee killed an effort to allow counties to put up only 60 percent of the funding required for new student enrollment.

Instead, the committee rewrote the bill to give struggling counties the right to obtain a one-year waiver of the minimum school funding requirement from the state Board of Education.

Under the amended bill, the state board would review a county's financial posture during a public hearing.

County governments do not view the one-year waiver as being as helpful as the earlier, 60 percent proposal.

Mr. Ecker's statements about not reaching the maintenance-of-effort level place him alongside officials in at least nine other counties who recently have said they cannot meet the full maintenance-of-effort requirements -- including officials in Baltimore, Carroll and Prince George's counties.

Asked if he thought Mr. Ecker simply was trying to lobby lawmakers in Annapolis, Dr. Hickey said: "I don't want to impugn at all his honesty. I think he does have a concern about revenues and I don't know what all the numbers are that led up to the 90 percent."

Mr. Ecker said he was not trying to send a message to Annapolis. The money simply is not there to fund the full $6.6 million, he said.

Howard County Council Chairman Darrel Drown agreed.

"I've seen the numbers," Mr. Drown said.

Meanwhile, at Mr. Ecker's annual winter budget hearing last night, a leading school advocate pleaded with him to fully fund the maintenance of effort.

"This level of funding is critical," said Susan Tucker, chairwoman of the Howard County PTA Council's budget committee.

She pointed out that in the next fiscal year, Howard will open two new high schools and one new elementary school.

Enrollment will grow by 1,500 students.

Ms. Tucker said spending per student has decreased since 1991.

Even if fully funded, the school budget for the next fiscal year would represent $4,559 per student, compared with $4,629 per student in 1991, Ms. Tucker said.

Ms. Tucker was one of only eight speakers at the budget hearing, a low turnout that Mr. Ecker said may have been caused by threatening weather forecasts.

He said he will accept written testimony from citizens about the budget, which he will finish preparing next month.

The youngest, and shortest, speaker last night was Wilde Lake Middle School student Catherine Tsien.

Standing on tiptoe in front of the podium, she asked Mr. Ecker to fund phases two and three of renovations at her school.

Mr. Ecker said he plans to do just that.

Aside from the maintenance-of-effort issue, Mr. Ecker has only limited control over the county's school budget, which comprises more than half the county's entire current budget of $329 million.

Taking into account mandatory debt payments, Mr. Ecker has direct control over about $103 million worth of services such as roads, parks and land planning.

He plans to trim that total by $12 million over the next 2 1/2 years and put the savings back into more money for schools, other services and debt payments.

To get things started, Mr. Ecker earlier this year asked the departments he controls to cut 4 1/2 percent-or $4.6 million-for the fiscal year that begins in July.

They haven't quite gotten there -proposing about 3 percent in total cuts.

"There's a tendency for departments to ask for more than they can get," said Mr. Ecker, who is looking to make further cuts.

Two agencies-the county police and the county jail-have proposed a total of less than 1 percent in cuts, even though they were asked to cut 2.3 percent, according to county records.

But the agencies probably will not have to cut much more, if any.

"He [Mr. Ecker] tended to be more lenient with public safety," said Ray Wacks, the county budget administrator.

Pub Date: 3/08/96

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