Despite hurdles, commitment to Arundel children's education is unmatched

Opinion

June 17, 2007|By JOHN R. LEOPOLD

Our Anne Arundel County fiscal 2008 budget, a collaborative effort between my administration and a unanimous County Council, makes a historic commitment to the education of our children.

Half of the tax money that will be spent will go toward our schools, a level unmatched in the history of charter government. We have focused our resources on the classroom, funded the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, expanded the International Baccalaureate program and promoted a safer, more secure learning environment with additional security provided by our Police Department.

The problem of student truancy will be met with additional personnel workers, who will strive to bring those young people back into the mainstream of our educational system.

Having supported these student-centered programs, I am proud to have proposed to make only modest increases in administrative positions and programs. The County Council has agreed,

Anne Arundel County Public Schools operated in fiscal 2007 with a $754.5 million operating budget. The fiscal 2008 budget was approved for $812.2 million, an 8 percent increase.

This is in a school system that expects the number of students to decline by 299 from September this year to September 2008. The number fell from 75,081 in 2002 to 73,066 this year.

My background as a member of the National Advisory Council for the Education of Disadvantaged Children and the National Council on Disability led me to propose record levels of funding for special education.

Our hardworking teachers and principals will be rewarded with a 6 percent pay increase, part of our effort to improve recruitment and retention of our best and brightest.

My obligation as county executive is to work with the County Council to craft a budget that is fiscally responsible and meets the needs of our residents within the resources available. We must always remember that the funds we allocate don't belong to us; they belong to the taxpayers, who expect us to be good stewards of their money.

I am truly sorry that schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell believes, as he wrote in these pages last week, that the County Council "kept what was rightfully ours" when it reallocated un- spent board fund balances to meet the needs of the whole county. Taxpayer money does not "rightfully" belong to any department of government.

The school board budget fails to recognize the county's finite resources. In addition to funding education, we must provide for public safety and our first responders, the county's parks and recreation system, public works, the library system, public health and our environmental protection efforts.

The capital budget - funds for bricks and mortar - allocates 52 percent of its total to education. The County Council and I agreed on this allocation as the appropriate proportion in light of our need to not only construct schools, but also to build and improve roads and fire stations, upgrade our waterways and protect our environment.

Our school construction program is designed to guarantee full state funding eligibility for the next two fiscal years.

Our two elementary schools most closely tied to the expansion of operations at Fort Meade - West Meade and Pershing Hills - were originally listed by the Board of Education as its 27th and 28th priorities in its fiscal 2008 capital improvement plan.

The concern expressed by Dr. Maxwell that the county's capital budget and program would somehow shortchange efforts to increase capacity at those schools is surprising in light of their original place on the board's priority list.

Through my efforts, in collaboration with the County Council, we have a county capital budget account that is nimble enough to respond to our school construction needs upon completion of the feasibility studies for those two schools and for the possible renovation or replacement of Northeast High School.

In light of the state's difficult fiscal situation, with the possibility of significant reductions in state school construction funding and general state assistance to the county, I would have hoped that Dr. Maxwell and the board would have been more supportive of efforts to preserve maximum flexibility through creation of a county funding pool upon which we can draw if state resources dwindle.

Our county's fiscal 2008 operating and capital budget has been enacted. It is time to focus on establishing mutually agreed upon academic priorities within the framework of political and fiscal realities.

I encourage the superintendent and the board to work with the County Council and my administration to implement realistic budgets and provide our children with a robust academic experience that will help provide opportunities for family-sustaining jobs that will be competitive in our global economy.

The writer is county executive of Anne Arundel County.

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