Questions of money, politics in Howard Schools: Educators criticize County Executive Charles I. Ecker's budget, saying quality will suffer.

May 01, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a gubernatorial candidate running as a tax-cutting fiscal conservative, has enraged many local educators who charge that his policies threaten to weaken one of Maryland's most respected school systems.

The former educator is refusing to hand out millions of dollars requested by school officials, despite a $16 million surplus. At the same time, Ecker is proposing to cut the county's piggyback income tax, which some critics consider a blatant political gesture made at the expense of education.

The conflict is raising questions about a system many consider to be the backbone of the local economy, a big draw for businesses relocating in the region and a key factor in the county's high property values.

Are eight years of Ecker's tight budgets threatening to undermine the schools' strong reputation Ecker helped establish decade ago as deputy superintendent? Or, as Republicans charge, have Howard schools become spoiled with lavish spending on unnecessary programs?

Politics clouds the answers to both questions.

Ecker, a long-shot GOP candidate for governor, is wooing Republicans who don't want money wasted on what they see as frivolous programs. Some of the 20 or so Republicans who gathered to see him at a Harford County restaurant Tuesday night whooped and applauded when Ecker remarked that Howard schools' pre-kindergarten program wasn't very strong.

But in Howard County that same night, school officials blasted Ecker and his $195.6 million schools operating budget, which is $9.2 million short of what they wanted. They were already upset last month when Ecker axed plans for a new $30 million high school, though just yesterday, Ecker did please school officials by pumping millions more into school construction.

Unlike recent years, the bashing might make a difference. Democrats sense an opportunity to regain the county executive's seat and a majority on the County Council. C. Vernon Gray, a Columbia Democrat, said yesterday he will propose increasing the school operating budget by $7 million.

Republicans on the council, previously unsympathetic to educators' pleas for more money, are now thinking up ways to add a smaller amount to Ecker's budget.

At stake, educators say, is what they consider the foundation for success in Howard schools: small class sizes, the best teachers and innovative programs. Many classes have grown larger in recent years, teacher salaries are slipping in comparison to some neighboring counties, and Howard students have seen few new programs this decade.

"Services were cut, class sizes increased, inexperienced teachers were hired and extracurricular activities became virtually nonexistent," Linda R. Betts, an Ellicott City parent and a PTA activist, wrote to the County Council this week. "After years of telling us that funds are not there, how can you, with a clear conscience, fail to fund the entire education operating budget?"

Parents and school officials say that in such strong economic times, the county has a duty to make up for the austerity budgets of the past and not cut taxes as Ecker has proposed.

His tax cut, which would reduce the piggyback tax from 50 percent to 48 percent of the state income tax, would eventually cost $5.5 million a year and would return about $51 to the average Howard taxpayer. Some complain Ecker is more concerned with selling his fiscal conservative platform in far-flung counties than with schools he used to help run.

"To me it's just unconscionable," said Michael E. Hickey, superintendent of Howard schools. "I would hope that the quality and the needs of the educational program in Howard County would be determined by people in Howard County, not some Republicans in Harford County or [elsewhere]."

Hickey is urging the County Council to increase Ecker's operating budget by at least $4.7 million to keep pace with 1,500 new students and help cover an $8.8 million pay plan for teachers.

Other school systems might have little sympathy for Howard's, where test scores are still the highest in the state and per-pupil spending is the second-highest despite more than a decade of enrollment growth. After all, Ecker's proposed schools budget is $11 million higher than last year's, a 6 percent increase.

"I really think that the 6 percent increase that we provide education will be the largest of any county in the state when all is said and done," Ecker said yesterday.

Ecker, who has a reputation as a cautious fiscal manager, said he would have given the schools millions more dollars if he was thinking about the governor's race. He insisted it just isn't necessary.

"We do have a good school system, no doubt about it. But counties that spend $1,000 less per student than Howard County have good schools, too."

But in Howard, where the school system is often the top reason people move to the county, votes can be won or lost on the mere perception that quality might slip.

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