Executive's budget pledge faces test

Ruppersberger must cut schools' request

March 01, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A buoyant economy has allowed C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger to wear two hats during much of his administration: fiscal conservative and education champion.

But as he prepares his seventh budget as Baltimore County executive, one of those hats is in danger of slipping off.

The county Board of Education sent Ruppersberger a request this week for $643 million in county funds for next year's budget, without making $20 million in cuts the executive had asked for.

Ruppersberger will have to make the trims, something he pledges to do to stay within a self-imposed limit.

By all indications, the executive will maintain his reputation for thrift as he prepares to run for governor next year. In recent speeches, he has drawn distinctions between himself and Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who proposed a state budget this year that would spend $209 million more than a ceiling established by a spending affordability law.

Ruppersberger says he has never exceeded the county's version of the limit.

The question becomes whether the executive's commitment to public education will be challenged if he begins eliminating popular initiatives this year. One test will come in two weeks, when he meets with PTA leaders, special education advocates and others to talk about his spending plan.

"It's got to do some damage," said Stuart D. Berger, a former superintendent of county schools. "You haven't had to alienate anybody for five years, and now you have to alienate some special interest groups."

Five years ago, Berger was ousted in favor of Anthony G. Marchione. Berger clashed frequently with the executive, but Marchione worked quietly to avoid controversy, primarily by orchestrating palatable budgets.

Marchione retired last year, and was replaced by Joe A. Hairston, a former Georgia and Prince George's County administrator who is preparing his first Baltimore County spending plan.

"Ruppersberger has had five glorious years of saying `I didn't cut; the Board of Education cut it,'" Berger said. "It's obvious from this he is no longer the superintendent. ... He has called all the shots."

Ruppersberger spokeswoman Elise Armacost denied that the executive had been surreptitiously running the school system under Marchione but acknowledged that his relations with the former superintendent were comfortable.

"Dutch, as we know, does not like or relish confrontation," Armacost said. "But the fact remains, schools have already gotten enormous increases under this administration, so I think he feels that his commitment to education is already well documented."

To some extent, conflict between local government and public school leaders is predictable in Maryland. Under state law, school systems aren't permitted to raise their own money, so they rely on taxes collected by county governments. County officials often complain that they give about half their tax revenues to schools, with little say over how it is spent.

Ruppersberger will review the schools spending proposal, and unveil his budget in mid-April.

Ruppersberger will probably increase the county's education spending by $25 million next year, Armacost said, far less than school officials seek. That accomplishment could get trampled in the arena of public opinion, a lesson learned by past county executives.

"Every year [school superintendents] would come in with a 200 percent increase. They didn't really care what the executive's problems were," said former County Executive Theodore Venetoulis. "We'd cut the percentage increase but still give them an increase, and they would attack us for cutting their budget. It was a very shrewd game, because we could never win that PR war."

Ruppersberger and Hairston have taken pains to avoid the appearance of a budget fight. Yesterday, they issued a joint statement stressing their cooperation and commitment to education.

"We intend to collaborate throughout the county executive's and County Council's budget process," it said. "And we expect to reap the kind of positive results we've seen over the past five years. During that period, the county's contribution to the education budget has grown by 43 percent, from $445 million to $598 million."

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