Deal seems near on schools Proposed budget may be increased in compromise

Council, board must agree

Ecker recommended $195.6 million

May 12, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Howard County's education spending battle appeared a step closer to resolution yesterday, with schools expected to garner millions of dollars more if a compromise can be reached with the County Council.

Republican Councilman Darrel E. Drown, who had firmly opposed adding more than $1.4 million to County Executive Charles I. Ecker's proposed $195.6 million operating budget for education, expressed hope yesterday that the council and the school board can agree on a more substantial increase.

Ecker's spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is $9.2 million short of what the schools requested.

"We're always open and flexible," said Drown, who said he plans to meet with school officials today. "We're willing to take a look at what some of the needs are."

Republican Councilman Dennis R. Schrader said yesterday he is working on a plan to add more than $1.4 million to Ecker's budget, leaving Republican Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga as the only council member advocating an increase of $1.4 million.

Earlier yesterday, Schrader, Drown and Feaga pleased school officials by agreeing to revive plans for a new high school in the fast-growing Fulton area, an idea endorsed by the council's two Democrats. The move puts off until at least next year the difficult decision of committing money for the $29 million school, but officials viewed it as a positive sign.

"I am optimistic," said schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "The momentum builds slowly sometimes."

This time, Democrats and school officials say, momentum picked up after a crowd of more than 800 packed a County Council public hearing on education Thursday night and forced the council to hear their testimony until after 1 a.m.

"Obviously, sometimes in order for people to see the light, they have to feel the heat, so apparently they felt the heat from all those people who testified," said Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray, who has proposed adding $7 million to Ecker's budget.

"They see that they're on the wrong side of the issue and I'm very pleased to learn that they recognize that," Gray said.

Aiming to defuse issue

Republicans are aiming to defuse what Democrats have tried to exploit as an election-year issue. With all three GOP incumbents leaving the County Council -- two of them to run for Ecker's county executive seat -- some GOP councilmanic candidates are concerned the school spending battle could be turned against them if a compromise isn't reached.

"I don't see how they can deny a compromise," said Republican Wanda Hurt, candidate for Schrader's North Laurel seat, which Democrats see as their best chance to regain control of the council. "I'm glad to hear Darrel is willing to move."

It's not clear how far Drown or Schrader are willing to go to please educators, but it is clear that Thursday's nearly six-hour hearing took its toll. Drown said he would be happy with an agreement that gave the schools millions of dollars more in exchange for more soothing rhetoric from educators.

'Vindictiveness'

"[Let's] try and take the vindictiveness and the acerbic-sounding voices out of the whole thing," Drown said. "People are trying to portray me and Charlie Feaga as anti-education. That's not true."

School officials initially asked for $9.2 million more than Ecker proposed, but they say they would accept an increase of $4.7 million. That would give them $15.7 million more in county money than this year, an 8.5 percent increase, and would cover the cost of growing enrollment and pay raises for teachers.

Without any increase, school officials say, they would have to make painful cuts, such as killing new programs to improve reading skills or handle disruptive youth.

"Nobody's trying to hold them up for the full $9 million, much as I think we need it," Hickey said yesterday. "We're willing to work with them. We just want them to be willing to work with us, too."

Four of the five council members are open to a multimillion-dollar increase. They are expected to continue working behind the scenes as they prepare for tomorrow's council work session on the schools budget.

Sticking to proposal

Feaga, who is running against Schrader to replace Ecker, opened the bidding on Ecker's schools budget two weeks ago by proposing a $1.4 million increase. He said yesterday he is sticking with that figure.

"Just to bend for what the crowds are demanding would be not protecting the people who are paying taxes," Feaga said. "This is as far as I'm going to go."

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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