Bill giving new clout to Gary debated County executive would get power to name school board

Senate passes measure

GOP-backed proposal criticized by teachers, some local delegates

March 20, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

In State House hallways and legislative offices, a partisan political struggle is taking place over a bill that would make Anne Arundel's county executive the only one in Maryland to appoint school board members.

The debate pits Board of Education members, parent groups and teachers against Republican legislators, whom critics accuse of carrying John G. Gary's water in the Capitol's corridors.

The Senate approved the bill, which would give Mr. Gary the power to appoint school board members without County Council approval, by a 45-1 margin late Monday night. But the measure faces a difficult time in the Anne Arundel House delegation, whose vote is crucial to its final passage.

The power to appoint Anne Arundel school board members resides with the governor. But Mr. Gary, a Republican, says that appointing his own members to the panel would give him greater control over the $416 million education budget that accounts for 57 percent of the county's spending.

The board sets its own budget, which must be approved both by Mr. Gary and the County Council.

Legislators agree that the appointment bill is one of the most important education measures this session.

"It's the most damaging piece of education legislation that I've dealt with since I've been here," said 17-year veteran Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a Brooklyn Park Democrat who cast the only "no" vote Monday night.

Lobbying against the bill has been furious in anticipation of an Anne Arundel House delegation vote, which could come as early today.

The Teachers' Association of Anne Arundel County, which opposes the bill on the grounds that it would remove the board's independence from partisan politics, has mailed a flurry of postcards to legislators. They summarize Mr. Gary's education policy as "stack 'em deep, teach 'em cheap."

A victory in the county delegation would be Mr. Gary's second this session on education. The delegation unanimously approved measure requiring the Board of Education to submit semiannual financial reports, which observers say indicates the clout that Mr. Gary, a former delegate from Millersville, has with local legislators.

"I think it's a power grab," said Del. Joan Cadden, a Brooklyn Park Democrat. "What more does he need? He already has the power of the budget."

Meanwhile, Del. Phillip D. Bissett is lining up support within the House delegation, particularly among young Republicans, who prefer a version that grants the County Council final say on appointments. The GOP has a one-vote advantage on the delegation.

"I'm confident we're going to do something about Anne Arundel's school board problem," the Edgewater Republican said.

The problem, some board members and parent groups say, lies with Mr. Gary's agenda to consolidate power in his office. The executive, facing stagnant property tax revenues, limited borrowing ability and a voter-approved tax cap, has said that hard times demand stern action.

Privately, Mr. Gary has complimented board members for their long hours. But publicly he has cast them as demanding spendthrifts.

Critics say the appointment bill would render the panel toothless, turning it into a political arm of the county executive. They point to troubled Baltimore schools as the legacy of a mayor-appointed board.

In the past few weeks, though, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has made overtures to teachers and parents. He has proposed giving parents greater say in where their children attend school and announced his intention to appoint the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, Irene B. Dandridge, to the school board.

The mayor has been commended for those actions, considered signs that Mr. Schmoke is sharing the power. But Mr. Gary's critics say he seems headed in the opposite direction.

Mr. Gary has said he will not tinker with education policy, but will look to cut costs where possible. But he could extend his reach, critics say, which frightens some board members, parents and teachers.

"If the county executive wants an education department under him, like the Department of Public Works, he should just say it," said Carolyn M. Roeding, the state PTA's vice president for legislative affairs.

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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