Gary knows he's in for a long school fight


April 21, 1996|By Brian Sullam

EFFICIENCY IS not a word usually associated with education, but times have changed.

In these days of shrinking public resources, tax caps and general public cynicism about government, county officials become very possessive of every dollar in the county treasury.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Anne Arundel Executive John G. Gary has tried to put his sharp pencil to education spending. With 57 percent of the county budget devoted to the school system, the education department is an inviting target.

Mr. Gary has had his eye on education spending for some time. Giving the county executive power to appoint school board members was a cornerstone of his 1994 election campaign. Such a board, he maintained, would be "more accountable" than the current one, whose members are appointed by the governor following a convention in which civic organizations rank prospective candidates.

The reality is that he has little direct control over spending, but is prepared to wage a long-term political battle in order to get a say in how the largest portion of the county's budget is spent.

This year's operating budget for the schools is about $417 million. The capital budget -- which covers new construction and renovations -- is another $25 million.

For a politician who has tried to squeeze all he can out of the 43 percent of the budget he controls, the education budget becomes an irresistible target.

To make his case that the Board of Education hasn't been frugal enough in spending tax dollars, Mr. Gary has harped on the misallocation of classroom space in the school system.

He cites a 1995 study done by a citizens' group that revealed that the system has about 14,300 empty seats. He also cites a county auditor's report that despite this abundance space, about 30 schools -- or one-third of all county schools -- are overcrowded.

According to Mr. Gary, the school board has been unwilling to take a limited redistricting plan to resolve the problem. Instead, the board proposes building new schools, a strategy that places the hot potato in the laps of the executive and council who are ultimately responsible for the capital improvements budget.

Mr. Gary also likes to point out that school officials have been very wide of the mark in their pupil projections and about the needs at specific schools. In 1995, the system was supposed to get 2,000 additional students. Only 832, or less than half the estimate, actually enrolled, he says. The school board routinely overestimates enrollment to pad its budget request, he claims.

School board President Joseph H. Foster disputes Mr. Gary's contentions. The board has never "padded" enrollment figures and has requested only the number of teachers needed, he says.

To substantiate his charge that school officials are incapable of building schools and classrooms where they are needed, Mr. Gary points to South Shores Elementary in Crownsville.

Originally designed for 312 students, it was expanded during construction to house 412. The actual enrollment is about 202. By contrast, Windsor Farms Elementary in Arnold was built for 514 students, but the school now enrolls 565 students.

To clinch his argument, Mr. Gary's points to a series of construction cost overruns. Last year, the system requested $5.9 million to cover spending construction deficits in the previous year. This year, the system is asking for $9.5 million to cover excess building costs incurred last year.

Mr. Foster defends the system's construction program. He says Mr. Gary is wrong to say there have been overruns in projects that have yet to be built.

An organization with 105 schools and 6,900 employees that spends about $2.3 million each work day has ample opportunity for some loose spending. Any organization that size is bound to spend money inefficiently.

Mr. Gary maintains that if the county assumed school construction, warehousing and vehicle maintenance duties -- substantial savings could be realized.

For citizens who believe that every tax dollar should be spent wisely, Mr. Gary will be a hero.

'Stack 'em deep '

But there are also groups -- teachers in particular -- who believe that he is nothing more than a craven politician trying to score cheap points with the electorate. The Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County has already launched a campaign saying that Mr. Gary wants to "stack 'em deep and teach 'em cheap."

Despite a sustained effort to get his view across, Mr. Gary has made little progress. He lost his bid in the state legislature, to which he once belonged, for school board appointment power. He knows that he is in for a protracted battle, but shows no sign of giving up.

Mr. Gary also is not bothered that opponents will portray him as a mean-spirited public official who is prepared to sacrifice children to achieve fiscal efficiency.

In fact, he seems to relish that designation -- if it means that millions of education dollars are spent more wisely.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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