The he-said, they-said of school funding scandal


August 09, 1998|By BRIAN SULLAM

HOW WILL it end?

Not the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky-Kenneth Starr imbroglio, but the bare-knuckles fight between Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary and the Board of Education.

We are more than five weeks into the 1999 fiscal year, and the county's education budget is still in flux.

Sitting before the County Council is a request for a supplemental appropriation of nearly $6 million for the school system. It would be added to the $454 million already allocated.

Mr. Gary made an unprecedented appearance before the council last month, partly to complain that the school board had not indicated to his satisfaction how this additional money would be spent.

"You should be outraged that this board expects your elected representatives to give them an additional $5.8 million without providing details for the public record as to how they intend to spend this money," he said.

The Board of Education, however, is standing its ground. It maintains that it is an independent body that does not have to submit detailed budget explanations as do other departments directly under the executive's control.

Until it cries 'uncle'

Will the County Council approve this money or will it withhold it until the board cries "uncle" and agrees to certain conditions?

Aside from the basic structural conflict in Maryland counties that arises out of having an appointed Board of Education that doesn't answer to the county executive or a board of commissioners, this year's turf battle includes other elements.

Mr. Gary, who has imposed his fiscal control over every other county department, wants to dictate spending in the school system. The school board, on the other hand, is protective of its independence. Parents and students, meanwhile, are left to wonder whether this confrontation over government powers will

result in the loss of popular programs and services.

When school doors open in a few weeks, will there be gifted and talented instruction? Will parents have to pay $50 for each child who plays on an athletic team or in the school band? Will activity buses be eliminated?

To Mr. Gary, these cuts are deliberate efforts by the school board to turn the public against him. He says these wrong-headed decisions are evidence of the board's ineptitude.

To the board, these cuts are the natural consequence of a process that left the school system short of money and a county executive who wants to meddle in affairs over which he has no authority.

The council now has to deal with this politically volatile issue.

A majority would like to restrict the board's ability to spend the money. Maryland law makes that difficult.

Instead, the council seems to be considering Mr. Gary's suggestion that the money not be released until the board

promises that it won't spend the money on pay raises for teachers and administrators.

No money for raises

Any objective examination of the education budget shows there is no money available for across-the-board raises.

If the board were to award pay increases and not restore some of the programs and services threatened, it would then become the object of parental scorn.

Election-year politics only serves to complicate the resolution of this mess.

When parents accuse Mr. Gary of being anti-education, he points out that he is interested in reducing class size, providing more textbooks and denying money to bureaucrats.

He has requested a state audit of the school system. While he says he hopes an audit doesn't show the level of mismanagement discovered in Prince George's County schools, Mr. Gary says he is certain that it will.

County Councilwoman Diane R. Evans, who is running for the Democratic nomination for county executive, is trying score political points on this issue, too.

At the last council meeting, she introduced a resolution asking that money be transferred to the school system without strings.

When Mr. Gary introduced his supplemental request, Ms. Evans withdrew her proposal, angering parents and teachers who thought she should have pressed on.

Meanwhile, the cental problem remains: Anne Arundel is not raising enough money to finance a top-notch education system.

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

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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