Schools, county disagree on power Clashes over issues test board's autonomy

March 12, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The outcome of clashes among county school officials and the county government over issues such as a French immersion program, school construction and the appointment of board members will determine the future authority of Anne Arundel's school board.

Each of these issues touches on the question of how independent the school system should be from the government, which supplies two-thirds of the schools' operating budget and at least half its capital budget.

Advocates of the board say tipping the power toward the county government would inject local political whims into education policy.

"French immersion is mandated to be removed by the County Council, that is the tip of the iceberg," said Thomas E. Florestano, a school board member and former president of Anne Arundel Community College. "The selection of school board members, the issue of capital projects, increasing capacities -- these are benchmarks for the future of the board."

But administration advocates say school spending needs more oversight because the board has wasted money.

"The economic times force us to be concerned with controlling those items that the school board has been permitted to do but is not authorized to do," said County Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican.

Board member Thomas Twombly, a frequent critic of the administration, said the county is targeting the schools, which don't produce revenue, because of the money they absorb.

Also, the county can circumvent budget constraints caused by the tax cap and gain revenue by enlarging the real estate base with new subdivisions where schools are full, Mr. Twombly said.

"They see it as an erosion of their autonomy -- and to some degree there is some truth to it," said County Executive John G. Gary. "The system is no good. It needs to have some more scrutiny in it."

Mr. Klocko said previous county councils and executives "have allowed the board to get outside their limited scope of authority." The skirmishes include:

* School board appointments. Members are chosen by the governor with recommendations by the county executive and the county School Board Nominating Convention, a volunteer group.

Mr. Gary is pressing the General Assembly to give him the appointment power. The council wants ratification power.

Both argue that would make school board members more accountable to voters. But board member Joseph H. Foster counters that the board would become "totally useless," nothing more than "a rubber stamp" for the executive.

* School construction. Responding to parental pressure for neighborhood schools, the board has kept open elementary schools that are underenrolled and wants to reopen Adams Park Elementary, even though there are more than 1,000 empty seats in Annapolis elementary schools. Systemwide, there are 14,330 empty seats.

Mr. Gary wants more of them occupied through redistricting and busing. But board members see this as an assault on their policies to promote parental involvement through neighborhood schools, their free hand in redistricting and their desire to pick school sites.

Pointing to more than $7 million in cost overruns and errors in school construction over two years, the administration wants to take over school construction.

"I'm saying this is the game, and they don't like me telling them," Mr. Gary said. "They don't have to like it."

School capacity. The administration wants to start a system that permits new subdivisions until nearby schools go as much as 20 percent over capacity, on paper at least.

An adjustment of the school waiver system, this would have developers adding classroom wings or building small schools or paying toward either to help drop capacity back to 100 percent. Board members would become the "bad guys," said member Carlesa R. Finney, and would be forced into more emotional redistricting hearings.

* French immersion. A controversial pilot program was begun this year in which one kindergarten class at Crofton Woods Elementary School is taught in French. The school board voted 5 to 3 to keep it. The County Council wants to drop the money for it.

"I think the council has a perfect right to say to them, 'We don't think you should be starting new programs before you can fund the old ones,' " Mr. Gary said. "Of course, [board members] are within their right to thumb their nose at the County Council and me."

The issue, Dr. Florestano said, is larger because "all of a sudden you have the County Council cherry-picking their way through the budget. They can say the same thing about chemistry if they want."

* Spending reports. Whether or not a provision requiring added spending reports to local governments becomes statewide law, a separate measure for Anne Arundel has won the delegation's support.

Advocates say it is a way to keep tabs on how well the school system is doing in sticking to its council-approved budget. However, school officials and the council meet voluntarily at midyear on spending, and a monthly summary goes to the county budget office.

Wary school board members say the measure is a way for the County Council to needle them about spending, especially if they scrimp in one category to pay for a project in another -- notably a project the council or administration doesn't like. French immersion, for example.

"I think that the reason these changes are coming about is because the autonomy they have been granted in the past has been abused," Mr. Gary said. "Those of us with the public dollars are being pressured to do something about it."

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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