Maybe Merlin should run for county executive?

Comment

October 11, 1998|By Brian Sullam

ANNE ARUNDEL residents recognize that many county schools are crowded and in need of repair, yet not enough of them appear willing to pay more in taxes to hire teachers and reduce the maintenance backlog.

Residents also acknowledge that the government should spend more on schools in general, according to a 1997 poll that professor Dan Nataf conducted for the Anne Arundel Community College Center for the Study of Local Issues.

In a survey his students conducted and he supervised, Dr. Nataf found that 72 percent of residents polled said the county should increase school expenditures. Were the poll taken today, one assumes the findings would be similar.

Having good schools is important to county residents.

When asked to rank the county's priorities, respondents placed spending for schools higher than such essentials as police, environmental oversight, senior citizen services and fire protection.

Smaller classes, higher pay

To improve school performance, the public wants more aides in classes, smaller classes, more teachers to deal with disruptive students and an increase in teacher pay, according to the study.

Dr. Nataf's twice-yearly surveys also show that an equal majority of residents adamantly oppose an increase in taxes.

Only 37 percent of people polled in the spring of 1997 said that they would be willing to pay an extra $200 a year for four years to finance school repairs. Sixty percent strongly disapproved of this solution.

Six months later, Dr. Nataf asked whether respondents would approve of raising "everyone's tax somewhat" to pay for schools. Thirty-nine percent approved; 55 percent did not.

These are certainly confusing signals for the county executive and council.

If they are tight-fisted on school spending, the public isn't happy. Neither is it thrilled, however, when elected officials suggest that slight increases in taxes can improve schools.

Psychologists label this phenomenon "magical thinking."

Houdini's county council?

In the real world, reconciling these contradictory demands is impossible -- unless, perhaps, Merlin the Magician could win as county executive and Houdini, David Copperfield and Penn and Teller could become a majority on the council.

But Anne Arundel is not a magic kingdom, and county officials will somehow have to resolve this conundrum.

County Executive John G. Gary thinks the answer is changing the form of school governance.

The issue may not excite voters and is likely to upset well-entrenched interest groups who have a stake in preserving the status quo, but Mr. Gary promises he will forge ahead if re-elected.

He is convinced that the only method for dealing with the school system's fiscal problems is to make the Board of Education more accountable to the executive and public.

Under the county's current arrangement, in which the governor appoints board members, no incentive exists to select people who will include the county's fiscal situation in their deliberations over school policy and budgets, Mr. Gary contends.

He wants the county executive to appoint school board members, subject to a veto by the council. He is not the first to float the idea.

Elected school board

So desperate is he to change the governance structure, Mr. Gary said in a recent interview that he would even accept a popularly elected school board.

He is convinced that if the board had to answer to the executive and council or the public, it would assemble more responsible budgets. (His colleagues in other Maryland counties with elected school boards might differ.)

Since he took office in 1994, Mr. Gary has claimed that if the school system was more frugal and managed people and purchases better, there would be plenty of money to hire more teachers, provide the necessary textbooks and repair aging schools.

To some extent, he had convinced a portion of the public he was on the right track -- that is, until last summer.

Since then, the public perceives that Mr. Gary has been unfairly picking on the school system.

Owens' advantage

His Democratic opponent in this election, Janet S. Owens, is attempting to gain advantage by positioning herself as a candidate who is "pro-education."

She has the support of the teachers' union and community groups concerned about the state of the school system.

Despite this support, Ms. Owens cannot resolve the county's fundamental dilemma: increasing school spending without relying on additional taxation.

If people don't want more money to come out of their wallets, no one elected to the executive's office, no matter how sympathetic to education, will be able to meet their desire for more school spending.

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

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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