Education budget merits a more intelligent debate

Comment

May 17, 1998|By BRIAN SULLAM

IF THE TEACHERS Association of Anne Arundel County is to be believed, Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary's proposed budget calls for slashing the education budget and sacrificing the welfare of children.

The budget's main beneficiaries are "big developers," "big government" and "big political contributors," according to a teachers' union ad that ran in The Sun and Annapolis Capital.

Mr. Gary's attempt to show who is the "boss," it said, is "hurting children and the employees who provide their education."

It is great inflammatory rhetoric.

It is also wide of the mark.

The conflict over next year's budget is more complicated and interesting than the teachers' union would lead taxpayers to believe.

Lost in the fog

Lost in the foggy arguments that have settled over the budget deliberations are a few simple facts:

Mr. Gary's budget calls for increasing school spending by $17.5 million, or 4 percent, to $454.6 million.

His proposed budget calls for hiring an additional 41 teachers and 19 teaching assistants next school year.

Total employment in the education system will increase from 7,149 to 7,233 positions.

This cannot be called a plan that cuts education.

The debate is really about how much education spending should increase.

The county Board of Education wanted a $60.1 million increase, or 14 percent.

Given that the total county budget -- covering everything from public safety to waste water treatment -- is increasing by $67.8 million, the board's request was extravagant.

As important as education is, county government has other responsibilities, too.

No additional police?

Had Mr. Gary honored the school board's budget, there would have been no money to hire 25 additional policemen, 22 more workers for the community college or hire employees for the new detention center or Pasadena Senior Center.

The assembling of any public budget includes a certain amount of gamesmanship.

Agencies generally ask for more than they expect because the chief executive and council routinely cuts their requests.

Even in the tight budget times, the school system routinely asks for more than it received the prior year.

This year, the habit of asking for more than the system needed to get what it actually requires got out of hand.

Superintendent Carol S. Parham readily admits she asked for a big increase.

Her reasoning was straightforward: The county has a great deal of revenue flowing into its coffers and residents expect the school system to perform at level comparable to Howard or Montgomery counties, which spend considerably more on their students.

Dr. Parham asked for an increase of about $50.2 million. The school board added about $9 million to her request.

Obviously, the superintendent and board overreached. Even if Mr. Gary were a totally different kind of administrator, these requests were beyond what he could approve.

Given the county's tax cap, an inflexible mechanism that requires the real property tax rate to be cut 2 cents per $100 of assessed value this year, property tax revenues are rising by only 2 percent.

All revenues are expected to rise only 3.4 percent, a insufficient amount to satisfy a 14 percent increase in education spending.

Change the focus

Rather than rail about reductions, people concerned about schools ought to focus on the allocations Mr. Gary made for education.

Several issues cry out for an intelligent debate.

Mr. Gary provided funds for only 10 additional reading teacher positions, about half of what the board requested.

Some schools with children who need remedial reading instruction won't have the necessary personnel.

In special education, too, Mr. Gary's budget increases the number of special ed instructors, but provides only about one-fifth the number the school board wanted.

Money for repair and maintenance has been shaved from $19 million to $11 million at the same time Mr. Gary has increased so-called "pay as you go" funding for school construction to reduce financing costs.

Even if Mr. Gary is interested in using extra money for pay-go projects, wouldn't it make more sense to use these funds to reduce the $80 million backlog of repair projects and rely on debt financing to pay for new construction?

Two weeks remain before the County Council approves a final budget.

It's not too late to have an informed discussion about the county's education spending.

The first order of business, however, must be to move beyond the kind of simple-minded rhetoric being floated by the teachers' union.

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

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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