Better budget for schools Howard County: Threat not to meet minimum school funding level floundered.

April 25, 1996

HAVING AVOIDED THE lowly distinction of being unable to meet the state's minimum standard for local funding of public schools, Howard countians must ask why one of the wealthiest counties in the nation put itself in that predicament.

The $336.5 million overall operating budget proposed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker includes a 5.5 percent ($6.6 million) increase for education. Had he been unable to juggle funds to increase the school's budget share to $193.5 million, the county would have had to forfeit $2.8 million in matching state education aid.

Though Mr. Ecker seemed to think he had a strong case for being granted a waiver that would postpone for a year the state's "maintenance of effort" requirement, that possibility appeared remote to others. After all, at the same time he was claiming financial duress, Mr. Ecker was also considering a 4-cent decrease in the county property tax rate. He said the cut would be needed to ease the impact of a new garbage fee that homeowners may have to pay.

But the budget proposal he has presented to the County Council does not include the tax cut and that means there will be adequate funding for schools. Superintendent Michael E. Hickey says he's happy with the budget, even though it is only enough to keep pace with day-to-day operations. Howard countians have to decide what more they want to do to match school funding to the contining population growth that their school system is experiencing.

In considering Mr. Ecker's budget, the County Council must place it in context with Howard County's future, not just the 12 months the spending plan covers. They need to know if imposing a $125-a-year garbage fee will free money that could be spent in other key areas, including schools. They need to ask whether a tax cut would be affordable if it entices taxpaying businesses to the county. They must ask whether residents of one of the richest counties in Maryland should pay more for the various services they want to receive.

The budget presented by Mr. Ecker comes as a result of his asking each department to submit a Spartan request for funding. Now the council must decide whether such a budget will allow those agencies to realistically do the jobs that people expect of them. If not, the council must come up with some viable alternatives.

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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