Twist and shout in Annapolis Schools: Heated battle between Anne Arundel executive and board over budget leaves public bewildered.

July 23, 1998

FOLLOWING the twists and turns of this year's education budget debate in Anne Arundel would leave anyone dizzy. Even though the fiscal year is nearly a month old, the sum available for county schools still seems to be up in the air.

After reducing the school board's request by $47 million three months ago -- leaving education with a $14 million budget increase -- County Executive John G. Gary made an unprecedented appearance before the County Council this week to ask for an emergency $5.8 million education appropriation. His advocacy for more money came with a caveat. If the council doesn't receive an accounting of where these extra funds will go, it should use its leverage -- possibly withholding the appropriation -- to compel the system to provide one.

Developing an education budget has never been a process free of conflict. Contention is practically built in, given a structure where the Board of Education develops an annual spending plan independent of the county executive, who must then make it conform to fiscal realities. This year, however, the fight between educators and the executive became exceptionally nasty and personal.

When the school board received $9 million less than it had anticipated, the usually abstract aspects of budget-making became more concrete. The board cut gifted-and-talented education and imposed fees for after-school sports. It also deferred building repairs.

Realizing that students will bear the brunt of these cuts, Mr. Gary wants this added appropriation passed before school begins and insists that the system to account for it. School officials reply that they have given sufficient detail.

The story is further complicated by election-year politics. Did Mr. Gary offer the aid because he feared the fight had begun seeping into the classroom, or because he wanted to prevent would-be challengers from outflanking him on the education issue?

Politicians may learn the hard way this is not an area of public policy to play games with.

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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