Baltimore County's fat times

Budget: Doling out school book money will only impede efforts to put needed volumes on the shelves.

May 12, 2000

BALTIMORE COUNTY Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's budget goals have always been straightforward: Maintain essential services, improve schools, revitalize declining communities, make the streets safe and encourage economic development.

And even though the county's economic situation is vastly improved since Mr. Ruppersberger took office in 1994, his basic spending plans have not changed.

His proposed $1.8 billion 2001 budget -- with an $85 million surplus -- doesn't add any new programs or frills that would obligate the county in future years. Instead, his plan -- as it has been every year -- is to take care of basic services and use any "extra" money to attend to those needs neglected in previous budgets.

Mr. Ruppersberger continues to adhere to his "fix schools first" strategy. The budget calls for spending $56.4 million more on schools next year. The extra money will be used for building, repairing and renovating schools. He has also allocated unprecedented sums for massive purchases of computers and school library books.

The County Council is threatening to parcel out funds for school book purchases. That would be a mistake. Council members are worried that the school board will channel the money to other uses. When budgets are tight, as they were in the past, school administrators often raided repair and book purchase accounts. But times are good. Rather than worrying about the diversion of book money, the council should ensure that the large sums for books and computers are not squandered. Doling out the book money in dribs and drabs won't put any more books on the shelves.

Requiring the school board to provide the council with updated quarterly reports on its spending would be a more effective strategy. Although the council cannot tell the school board how to spend the money, it does have the ability to publicize school spending patterns. If the board is not adhering to its promises, it will be readily apparent to everyone.

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