Reining in school boards a necessity

July 26, 1998|By Elise Armacost

LAST WEEK Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary, long embroiled in disputes with the local school board, walked down to the County Council chambers -- past the protesting parents, past the pleading fifth-graders guaranteed to tug at council members' heartstrings -- and agreed to ante up nearly $6 million more in education funding.

Mr. Gary is not always the most politically astute of politicians, but this time he knew when to say when. The school board says $14 million in new operating money isn't enough, and has since cut programs that directly affect students. One suspects the board could have found less painful ways to make up at least some of the difference, but, as the executive realized, that doesn't help schoolchildren.

So he asked the council to release $5.8 million more -- with one caveat. He'd like to know what the money is used for.

A right to know

It isn't a far-fetched request. In Maryland, county executives (or commissioners) and councils -- not school boards -- are responsible for raising taxes to pay for schools. Consequently, they ought to know how the funds they authorize are spent, and they ought to have some control over them.

Nonetheless, Mr. Gary (and the public) has but a sketchy idea about what the school system intends to do with the extra money. On July 16, school board President Carlesa Finney wrote him a letter breaking the money into vague categories -- $1 million for "mid-level administration," $846,800 for "fixed charges," etc. "This level of detail should be sufficient for your purposes," the letter said, "and will give the board the flexibility that state law intends. . . . The board will exercise its best educational judgment based on the needs of the school system . . ."

Citizens would not stand for it if any other department of local government said: Give us the money, and trust us to spend it wisely. But the public has come to view schools differently after decades under state laws that give school systems unique spending power. Once elected officials allocate funds for education, school officials have broad latitude to spend as they wish. Money set aside for, say, microscopes can end up being used for teacher raises.

The way county school boards are chosen gives taxpayers virtually no one to hold accountable for such decisions. The handful of elected boards can't raise taxes, which means that they can blame school spending controversies on executives and councils. Other county boards are selected by the governor, who is so far removed from local affairs that his fate isn't tied to the actions of school board appointees.

The state laws are well-intentioned; they attempt to remove public education from the demogoguery of local politics. But they have bred the faulty notion that education can and should be completely depoliticized -- even though it accounts for 50 to 60 percent of local taxes. They have set up a system prone to conflict and frustration. Most importantly, they have created school systems virtually unaccountable to taxpayers.

An old story

What's going on in Anne Arundel is merely the latest chapter in an old story. In the 1990s alone, the problems inherent in the school board-local government relationship have bred tensions in every Baltimore suburban jurisdiction.

Former Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden proposed state legislation requiring Stuart Berger, then superintendent of schools, to answer his request for budget information.

During the recession of the early 1990s, former Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall won legislative approval for limited authority to trim the school budget.

In the mid-1990s, Carroll County schools submitted to a performance audit requested by the commissioners.

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a former educator, has long believed that either school boards should be elected with taxing authority or executives and councils should appoint boards and restrict their power to move money around after county budgets have been set.

The latter is the better solution. While elected boards with power to tax would be preferable to what we have now, such a change would likely discourage qualified parents and educators who lack a political bent, making boards too much the province of those who seek a board seat primarily as a steppingstone to higher office.

It makes sense to hold elected officials accountable for school spending. But it is pointless and unfair to do that if, as is the case in Anne Arundel, they don't even know how school funds are spent.

Public support for a semiautonomous school system is strong. But the notion that school systems exist in some pure world of their own, absolved of scrutiny by the public, must be put to rest. Taxpayers deserve a greater say over how education dollars are spent, and we'll have that when the people who control the purse strings are truly accountable.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun and has covered metropolitan school issues for 10 years. Her husband is a merit employee with Anne Arundel County's Office of Land Use and the Environment.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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