Ice storms and budgets reveal true `friends'


January 24, 1999|By HAROLD JACKSON

THERE'S NOTHING like a little ice storm to tell who your friends are. When there's no electricity for days, see who comes knocking on the door to make sure you're all right.

The power was out in our house for about 32 hours last weekend. The previous Thursday night in Howard County, all you could hear was the snap, crackle and pop of tree branches before they fell and electricity transformers before they failed.

The snow and ice only got worse the next day. But I had a roaring fire going Friday night that kept us comfortable.

Saturday morning, a neighbor whose power had been restored brought over a pot of hot coffee and an offer of more firewood. Later, another neighbor hooked us up to his portable generator for a couple of hours so we could heat the house and save some food in the freezer.

"Neighbor" is an inadequate description of such folks. I like "friend" a lot better. I owe them my thanks.

`Friends of education'

In the coming months, Howard County schools are going to learn a lot about friendship. They're going to find out which of the politicians who ran for office in November as "friends of education" meant it. How these elected officials handle the school system's budget request will be a test of their friendship.

Don't get me wrong. I don't mean to suggest that anyone who disagrees with the budget proposal recently submitted by Superintendent Michael E. Hickey is not a friend of education. It takes a good friend to tell you the truth. And the truth this time may be that Dr. Hickey has asked for too much.

He has asked for a 7.4 percent increase. That raise of nearly $20 million would bump the school system budget to $293 million, with about $16 million of the increase coming from the county. And that doesn't include pay raises, which are likely to be part of any final package.

Hickey the politician

Of course, some people say Dr. Hickey doesn't really expect to get $16 million more from the county. They say he has become quite the politician after 14 years as superintendent and knows well how to play the budget game: You ask for more than you want in hopes of getting what you need.

Many who watched him in action last year thought Dr. Hickey did a masterful job of manipulating the process. In the end, County Council members, reacting to public outrage at suggested cuts in Dr. Hickey's proposal, gave the schools more money than then-County Executive Charles I. Ecker recommended.

In Dr. Hickey's view, he prevailed because he had right -- not politics -- on his side. It was hard to counter his argument that the schools need extra funds to overcome the inadequate budgets during the recession of the early 1990s.

That argument may still be made since Dr. Hickey didn't get all he asked for last year.

Just as compelling is the need to spend more to provide for the growing student population. Howard continues to attract families with school-age children. More than 1,300 new students are expected next fall, which would push the total to nearly 43,000.

Reducing class size

The spending plan that Dr. Hickey has submitted to the school board asks for additional funds to reduce class size in the primary grades at 17 schools where student performance needs improvement. He also wants smaller ninth-grade math and English classes.

More money for special education is also in Dr. Hickey's budget. He wants to begin the first phase of an overhaul of the system's special education programs. The schools also want to provide more alternatives for students who are not doing well but may not require special education classes.

Robey's displeasure

It will be hard for true friends of education to say "no" to such worthwhile programs. Already, though, County Executive James N. Robey has voiced displeasure with Dr. Hickey's spending plan.

Mr. Robey points out that the county will have to do without the $5.5 million it lost when his predecessor cut income taxes last year. And tax collections may suffer an even greater hit if predictions of lower capital gains from stock market investments come true.

Dr. Hickey hasn't been impressed with such doom-and-gloom analyses by the county's fiscal experts. As evidence of their fallibility, he notes the $12 million miscalculation they made in predicting the size of this year's expected revenue surplus.

By law, revenue surpluses cannot be put into the general fund. The money must be used for one-time expenditures or saved for a rainy day.

The true friends of education are going to have to get together and figure this out. A realistic assessment of the county's revenue situation must be made. With those numbers, Mr. Robey, the school board and County Council can determine how much education can have.

They must do that with the understanding that other county departments have needs, too. But friends always find a way to share.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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