A county executive vs. school system Control: Anne Arundel's John Gary is using his political arsenal to gain control of the county school board and its $417 million budget.

March 28, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

John G. Gary is waging a holy war on the Anne Arundel schools.

After a year as Anne Arundel County executive, Mr. Gary is using all his bluff, bluster and bravado to try to wrest control of the Board of Education and its $417 million budget.

He has publicly cast board members as incompetent and is fighting, through State House proxies, to replace them with allies. He has vowed to cut teacher raises.

He has even shopped around his own school redistricting blueprint, usually the hottest of local hot potatoes, saying he would rather force kids to change schools than build new ones.

"It takes a tough executive to stand up to these folks," Mr. Gary, a Republican, said this month, referring to the school board. "They are mismanaging funds, and someone needs to tell the public. I'm the only one who can do it."

Not surprisingly, such talk hasn't endeared Mr. Gary to his foes.

"He thinks he's King John, ruling by fiat and executive order," said Thomas R. Twombly, a school board member and one of Mr. Gary's chief critics. "He's his own worst enemy."

Said Carolyn M. Roeding, the state PTA vice president for legislative affairs: "I haven't seen anything like this in the past. There have been rifts between the administration and the school board, but nothing like this."

The fight is more than just good theater.

For several years, county executives across the region have bristled at the independence of local schools. In most counties, the schools account for more than half the county budget -- in Anne Arundel, it is 57 percent -- yet county executives don't control the spending.

As growth and the "echo baby boom" have swelled classrooms across the suburbs, county executives have grown increasingly frustrated with school boards constantly seeking money for more schools, more teachers, more equipment -- yet resisting county suggestions on economizing.

"If Gary gets the power to appoint the school board, I think it's go- ing to be the first of many," Ms. Roeding said. Next up, she speculated: Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, who is supporting state legislation that would roll back mandated school spending floors and grant executives a line-item veto on education budgets.

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has also sought more control over school spending.

But back to John Gary.

Mr. Gary embodies the pol of a bygone era. He has a mane of white hair pomaded into an Elvis-style pompadour, a large belly and the speech of northern Anne Arundel's working class, where he came from politically. But after 12 years in the General Assembly, he also has the old-time pol's sixth sense: He knows how to win.

"He's having a very good session," said Del. Phillip D. Bissett, the Edgewater Republican who chairs the county's House delegation. "He's very familiar with the process. I think John is absolutely on target."

In this fight, Mr. Gary has often flexed his political muscle instead of outlining the fiscal motivation for his reforms. He has pitched his plans to angry community groups without prepared speeches. Aides wince at his pointed, off-the-cuff remarks, which they often don't know he has made until they appear in newspapers.

His first move was to get the Anne Arundel General Assembly delegation to approve a bill requiring the school board to give Mr. Gary and the County Council a full accounting of its spending twice a year. Mr. Gary's critics saw the bill as just a way to humiliate the school system, saying they already meet voluntarily at midyear on spending, and a monthly summary goes to the county budget office.

For his part, Mr. Gary wasn't surprised the delegation saw it differently from the critics.

"Of course they did," Mr. Gary said after the vote. "We're absolutely right on this."

About the same time came teacher raises. Right after the school board approved an operating budget that included 2 percent raises for employees, Mr. Gary vowed to eliminate money for the raises. It wasn't just what he did, it was how he did it.

"They are pipe-dreaming," he said after the school board vote a month ago. "We simply don't have the money to fund those kinds of requests."

Then came the redistricting fight. Responding to parental pressure for neighborhood schools, the board has kept open elementary schools that are underenrolled -- at the same time it is seeking millions to build new schools in growing parts of the county. Systemwide, Anne Arundel has more than 14,000 empty seats.

Mr. Gary wants more of the empty seats occupied through redistricting and busing. And he cites the school board's record on new construction: Last year, four school projects exceeded budget by a combined $9.5 million. A fiscal advisory panel has recommended a 35 percent reduction in the department's capital spending as punishment.

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

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