Schools' book funds may come in fractions

Baltimore County Council wants to keep reins on school board

May 10, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County students might receive only a fraction of the new library books and computers promised for next year because the County Council doesn't trust the school board to spend responsibly.

Several council members said yesterday that they are considering approving a third of the $9.6 million for school computers and $10.5 million for library books in County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's proposed budget for the fiscal year that will begin July 1.

A test for school officials

The partial funding would serve as a test. If school officials are able to document that the money was spent as it was intended, more would be appropriated.

Council members say they are worried that if they approve the full request, some of the money might be diverted to projects not funded in the budget.

Elected officials have accused school board members of doing that in the past, which school board members deny.

"There's a little bit of a problem in handing them money and saying,`Here it is,' " said Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder.

The idea of partial funding surfaced yesterday during the first in a series of council meetings that will culminate in a vote May 26 on the proposed $1.79 billion budget. It will be more thoroughly discussed Tuesday, when the council studies the $598.1 million schools budget in greater detail.

The 2000-2001 budget would provide $56.4 million more for public schools without increasing the county's property tax rate.

Long-standing tension

The threat of partial funding underscores long-standing tension that exists between the council and the board over spending priorities.

Under state law, the council approves the school system's budget. But the council cannot dictate how the money is spent. That's up to school board members, who are under no obligation to abide by the wishes of local politicians.

"Once they get it, they can spend it on whatever they want," Bartenfelder said.

The partial-funding threat also may reflect some bruised political egos.

Ruppersberger and state lawmakers are quick to point to the money they have provided for school construction and teacher salaries, but council members say they are reduced to fielding complaints about school repairs, supply shortfalls or teacher problems in their districts.

"We never get any credit," said Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat.

Much of the council's frustration, said school board Chairman Donald L. Arnold, stems from delays and lack of oversight in recent school construction and renovation projects.

But officials have never raided money earmarked for supplies such as books, he said.

"I don't think that is a founded statement," Arnold said. "A lot of these things -- not all of them -- are attributed to misunderstanding and perception."

Ruppersberger's budget provided the schools with more money than requested for library books and computers. Two recent surveys revealed inadequacies in both areas.

"If you know you have a problem, how can you not fix it?" said Fred Homan, the county's budget director.

Homan said he and Ruppersberger are confident that the school system will spend the money the way it was intended.

That confidence is shared by Della Curtis, coordinator of Library Information Services for the county school system.

"I am passionate about this, and I will do whatever I need to do to see the $10.5 million is spent in the way that I made the proposal," Curtis said.

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