Measure Gives County Executives in Md. Broad Power to Trim Education Spending

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Maryland educators were furious last week over a last-minute legislative amendment granting county chief executives unprecedented control over education budgets.

The amendment was approved this month as part of a package trimming $68 million from state aid to county governments, in the latest round of cuts to close a $450-million budget gap.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer was expected to sign the legislation late last week.

Under the measure, state aid to education would be cut by about $15 million. Of that amount, $13.9 million would come from non-mandated programs, such as magnet schools, dropout and suicide prevention, child-abuse control, environmental education, teenage pregnancy counseling, and gifted-and-talented courses, according to Page Boinest, a spokesman for Governor Schaefer.

The balance of the direct education cuts would come from administrative salaries at the state department of education and from some services to the disabled.

Included in the $68 million to be cut from state aid to the counties would be $20.1 million in state support for teacher and librarian pensions and Social Security benefits. The latest county-aid cuts come on top of $115 million in previously approved reductions to local governments. At the urging of Robert R. Neall, executive of Anne Arundel County, lawmakers tacked on an 11th-hour amendment giving county governments the power to cut education spending unilaterally in order to counteract the drop in state aid.

The provision allowed counties only to cut such items as fringe benefits, transportation, and maintenance, however, and barred unilateral cuts in classroom programs. The provision would be in effect for one year.

Sharing Budget Pain

Backers of the amendment argue that county governments need to have the power to force education-which takes up 40 percent to 60 percent of county budgets--to share their budgetary pain.

"If a county has a choice between laying off a [school] janitor or a police officer, we know which one should be let go," said Ms. Boinest.

But state education groups say the amendment would impinge on school districts' well-established budget prerogatives.

Under current law, counties have until June 30 of each year to approve their education budgets and set tax rates. Any school cuts after that can only be made with the approval of the school board, according to Susan R. Buswell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

An estimated 8,000 teachers, administrators, parents, and students rallied at the State House in Annapolis last Tuesday to decry that infringement on school autonomy.

"Our state leaders are asking us to take sides in a political battle between school boards and county councils, county governments and state government," Jane R. Stern, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, told protesters.

"In short," she said, "our leaders are asking us not to sacrifice but to surrender to bad pelitical leadership unable to make the tough decisions to maintain the common good."

Tax Hikes Sought

Demonstrators also denounced the funding cuts and called for tax hikes to help trim the budget gap.

The budget cuts approved by the legislature came after Governor Schaefer urged lawmakers to raise taxes and threatened to lay off 1,700 state employees, shut down police barracks, juvenile-delinquent centers, and state parks, and eliminate general public assistance to more than 24,000 residents.

Instead, legislators chose to spread some of those cuts to county aid. Mr. Schaefer had already cut that assistance by 25 percent, the maximum allowed without legislative consent.

The final version of the cuts restores $3.9 million to prison education, which was originally slated for elimination.

The state also restored about $6 million originally scheduled to be trimmed from state support for libraries, adult education, and school breakfast programs.

Vol. 11, Issue 08, Page 20

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