School funding is focus for Gary County executive says his record is misinterpreted

October 30, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Tuesday's county executive election may boil down to this essential question: Has John G. Gary been a friend or a foe to Anne Arundel County's public schools?

It's a simple question with no simple answer.


Gary's tough talk and his allegations against the eight-member school board and school Superintendent Carol S. Parham have overshadowed his accomplishments. Beyond budget-writing, Gary has little power to shape education policy. That job belongs to the superintendent and school board.

Gary's Democratic opponent, Janet Owens, has capitalized on the ill-will generated among parents and teachers by Gary's brow-beating of school officials. She is endorsed by the county teachers' and principals' unions, but has no experience in education administration and only a vague education agenda. Mostly, it's a pledge to play nice with Parham and the school board.

Parham refused to be interviewed for this article. Earlier this year, Gary accused her of submitting a padded budget request to the county in exchange for a lucrative new contract from the school board. Through a spokeswoman, she said it would be inappropriate for her to comment on Gary, with whom she has worked for four years. She said she did not want to appear to be taking sides.

Gary con-

tends that his education record has been misinterpreted by his opponent and by the public. But the numbers he hands out in self-defense don't instantly support the claim in his campaign literature: "John Gary has delivered for Anne Arundel schools."

"I don't know how you are going to make sense of all this," he told a reporter. "It's complicated."

Doing the homework

Here are highlights of Gary's education record:

He funneled $170 million into school renovation and construction, more than either former County Executives Robert R. Neall and O. James Lighthizer. Under Gary, Meade Middle School and Meade Heights and Jacobsville elementary schools were built. Renovations were completed at Glen Burnie High and started at Brooklyn Park Middle. Planning began on new Davidsonville and Glendale Elementary schools and on renovations to South River High.

He put most of an $11.2 million budget surplus last year into schools, including more than $5 million for Brooklyn Park Middle school and $2.5 million for textbooks. This year he put $5.8 million of a $22 million budget surplus into school computers, copying expenses, new teachers and other school-related expenses.

He gave the Board of Education an extra $1.2 million for an alternative high school.

He has established citizen committees to study several problems that have most annoyed him -- a $100 million maintenance backlog and school crowding.

He has ensured a flow of $7.9 million for computers in middle and high schools, making sure students have access to the Internet and the latest technology.

He boasts that he has doubled the budget for textbooks and supplied the money for 272 new teachers. The county's contribution to the school budget is growing faster than the state's, he said.

"So when I look at the growth in the budget, I don't see how the board can complain," he said.

Voters remember battles

Still, what sticks with voters seems to be his contentious relationship with school leaders. Even he admitted recently that his race against Owens would not be as close as it is, had he not picked a fight with the board and Parham.

"I get a little tired of people picking on one squabble that we had," Gary said. "It was my squabble, not [Parham's]. We had four good years together."

But it wasn't just one squabble that set the tone for this election. Gary's long-standing battle with school officials is rooted in his quest for what he calls accountability -- and what his critics call his need to control. He has asserted himself in territory school board members consider theirs alone: school construction, school crowding, spending and the selection of board members.

When he took office in January 1995, Gary, a Republican, found himself dealing with a school board appointed by a Democratic governor. So he lobbied the state legislature for the power to appoint school board members.

He lost on that front, but he did win passage of a bill that requires the school board to present regular, detailed financial reports to the County Council.

"It is accountability of their spending that I want," he said. "I don't want to run the school system. I have a big enough job here running the county."

Bricks and mortar

Next, he went after school building. Furious about $9 million in cost overruns (he once threatened to "fry their butts" if the school board turned out to be wrong about school renovation) and other problems in the schools' construction program. He formed a joint school and county committee that now oversees every aspect of building from design to cost.

"Once we really blew our stacks about all of that, we put the committee together, and it's working," he said. "Those mistakes won't be made again."

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