Ecker eyes waiver on school funds Executive says budget can't provide funds required by Md.

$6.6 million more needed

County must prove financial distress to be excused

April 12, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

A headline in Friday's Howard County edition of The Sun incorrectly stated the status of County Executive Charles I. Ecker's budget for next year regarding Maryland's "maintenance-of-effort" requirements for education funding. He has not concluded his budget plan for the coming year.

The Sun regrets the error.

Howard County could become the first county to take advantage of Maryland's new rules for education funding if County Executive Charles I. Ecker can't find the extra money the state requires for schools next year.

To do that, Mr. Ecker would need to convince the state Board of Education that Howard -- one of the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States -- is so broke that it can't raise an additional $6.6 million for education.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"I know that is the perception," he said, referring to the county's reputation for wealth, "but I would hope that [the state school board] would look favorably upon our request if we decide to make it."

State law requires counties to increase their spending on education to keep pace with increased enrollment or lose some state funding, but a change in the law that was approved by the General Assembly this week permits counties to seek waivers from the requirement in times of fiscal distress.

A representative of the state's coalition of county governments says Howard appears to be headed in the direction of making such a request or at least is the county closest to doing so.

Mr. Ecker said yesterday that he was still putting together his proposal for an operating budget for next fiscal year, which begins July 1, and that he won't know until April 22, when he presents his plan, whether the county can afford to meet the state's "maintenance-of-effort" requirement.

Howard school officials warn that a failure to come up with money to pay for the projected enrollment increase would have a devastating effect, probably requiring cuts that would directly affect the classroom. They say they are unlikely to support Mr. Ecker if he decides to seek a waiver in lieu of coming up with the $6.6 million.

A month ago, Mr. Ecker said the county's revenue picture for next year looked so bleak that there was a 90 percent chance of not meeting the maintenance-of-effort requirement, but yesterday he declined to speculate on the odds.

"We're going to try our best to come up with the money," Mr. Ecker said. This year's operating budget for the county totals $329 million.

The maintenance-of-effort law requires counties to increase their funding for education to keep per-pupil spending at least as high as it was the previous year or lose a portion of their state funding.

For the fiscal year beginning July 1, Howard would have to provide an additional $6.6 million to enable county schools to be eligible for an additional $2.8 million in state funds. The increase is required because of the 1,600 new students expected to enter the 37,300-student school system next fall.

Under a measure approved Monday by the General Assembly, a county may ask the state school board for a one-year waiver of its portion of the funding requirements and still be eligible to receive the state money.

To obtain the waiver, a county has to prove that its "fiscal condition significantly impedes the county's ability to fund the maintenance-of-effort requirement."

The bill offers no further criteria for the waiver, leaving it up to the state Department of Education to develop guidelines later this year.

In the meantime, if a county wants a waiver for the fiscal year beginning July 1, it can seek a waiver from the state school board, which apparently, has the authority to decide on waivers this year.

Michael J. Sanderson, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said he did not know of any county with plans to request a waiver but added that Howard has been "the most aggressive county so far" in discussions about seeking a waiver for the next fiscal year.

If Howard applies for a waiver, Mr. Ecker acknowledged, it will be difficult to convince the state of Howard's financial need.

A continued slowing of Howard's revenues is projected while its expenses -- especially for trash collection and disposal -- are growing. Mr. Ecker has ordered that his departments, on average, cut 4 1/2 percent from their budgets for next year.

The county executive, while saying that he plans to institute a $125-per-household trash tax next year, has all but ruled out an increase in the property tax rate in next year's budget. In fact, when he proposed the trash fee, he suggested cutting the tax rate by 4 cents per $100 of assessed value to ease the financial impact on homeowners.

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