Enough finger-pointing Gary's theory that schools knew money was coming, but created furor anyway, rings false.

August 26, 1998

THE 74,000 students of Anne Arundel County public schools are not the only victims in the continued verbal sparring between County Executive John G. Gary and the county Board of Education. The combatants themselves are also casualties.

With the opening of school five days away, Mr. Gary and the board continue to slug away at each other. Just last week, Mr. Gary reported that the county was expecting a surplus from the 1997 fiscal year and the schools would receive part of it.

In many jurisdictions, such news would be cause for celebration and political healing, but not in Anne Arundel, where every budget revelation is more fodder for someone's cannon.

Mr. Gary asserts that the school board should have anticipated this additional money and that it purposely misled the public for political gain. Just how masochistic does Mr. Gary think the folks on Riva Road are?

The executive says that he informed the county council and school board of his intentions in his budget message back in May.

"If we find that future income tax revenues continue to grow, we can then examine some of the issues which we are holding fTC back," Mr. Gary said then in prepared remarks.

That statement -- and a clairvoyant -- were the only things the school board needed to know the money was coming.

Had Mr. Gary really wanted school officials to understand, he might have said, "By the way, we are expecting increases in income tax collections and we plan to apportion some to the school system, just as we did a year ago." Such a message would have been truly unambiguous.

When the board made its cuts last month, it knew only that it had to eliminate $9 million to balance its budget. Even assuming that Superintendent Carol S. Parham and the board deliberately moved to eliminate those programs and services that would arouse the public and mobilize opposition, they based their decisions on the information at hand -- absent knowledge of a possible surplus.

Had Mr. Gary more fully informed the school board about budget expectations, its decisions might have been different.

Once the board received the $5.8 million supplemental appropriation, it did rescind controversial fees for after-school activities and restored other threatened services, with the inexcusable exception of the middle-school gifted and talented program.

In his single-minded quest to destroy the school board's credibility, Mr. Gary is poisoning his own relations with Dr. Parham. This is a regrettable turn, especially since the two seemingly worked well during the first three years of Mr. Gary's term. Such a hostile environment is unlikely to produce reasoned public policy.

For its part, the school board must back off its simplistic position that the executive is not to meddle in "school affairs."

Even if county coffers were overflowing, school operations cannot be totally independent of the county executive and council, not so long as they constitute the taxing authority and major funding source for the schools.

Elected officials should have some say over the 43 percent of the county budget devoted to education. As long as both sides are lobbing verbal artillery, a relationship cannot develop that allows the schools to operate while giving the council and executive comfort that the money is being spent wisely.

Pub Date: 8/26/98

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