The school budget dance -- Gazette.Net


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The scene is set. A cavernous gym, with a loud, vaguely familiar ’70s cover classic echoing indecipherably through lousy acoustics into the rafters, the smell of sweat socks still in the air.

The president of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners watches from one side of the hardwood, the superintendent of schools from the other. She eyes him suspiciously. They approach. Welcome to the Annual School Budget Dance.

Every year about this time, the superintendent unveils an ambitious proposed spending plan designed to make a good school system better, that the commissioners just as predictably label as unrealistic, wishful thinking, shaking their heads in disbelief.

The school system is hoping for the moon, but will settle for the stars. The county cannot afford either, its elected leaders protest. The supe is better off buying lottery tickets, they say.

Upping the ante this year with an orchestrated pep rally complete with cheerleaders and school mascots, Schools Superintendent Theresa Alban has proffered a $547,341,342 fiscal 2014 budget that asks for $24.25 million more than the last fiscal year, a 4.6 percent hike.

Among other things, like paying for those pesky unfunded mandates, her blueprint for success focuses on retaining top teachers, upgrading technology and improving security for the top-ranked school system in the nation’s No. 1 public education program.

Even before Alban’s marketing gig — breathlessly dubbed “Rally Around the Promise” — was held, commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young had labeled it an obvious political ploy designed to put public pressure on his board.

No kidding. The school system is appealing to the taxpayers directly: do you want to keep the best school system in the state? Do want the needs of your children met? Then you have to pay for it.

But hanging over the perennial dance like a bothersome priggish chaperone who won’t go away is something called “maintenance of effort,” a state law that requires all jurisdictions to provide at least the same funding for education as the previous year.

Three of the last five county school budgets have been assembled around that minimum level of funding. That means the county is already on the hook for $244.3 million, a mere $200,000 increase over last year to account for just 40 more students.

But Alban wants $15 million more than maintenance of effort, which she and others — including, not surprisingly, the teachers union president whose organization is negotiating a raise for his members — view as nothing more that a recipe for maintaining mediocrity instead of aspiring to excellence. Of that amount, $10 million will go to employee salaries and $5 million to cover increased health care costs.

Rounding out the financial pie, the county school system is also slated to receive $264.2 million from the state and $17.7 million from the federal government.

But the county has money problems of it its own to contend with. It is facing a $31.6 million structural deficit, as well as having to come up with $1.6 million more to pay for teacher pensions — a fiscal time bomb that is being transferred from the state to the backs of local jurisdictions.

Commissioner Billy Shreve compared the school system to a teenager constantly asking for more gas money, when all dad wants is for the kid to be more frugal in driving a car he helped pay for.

The friction, of course, stems from a simple reality: The commissioners are the funding authority for the school system, but the Frederick County Board of Education decides how to spend the money.

So the commissioners — who, in the end, must stand for election based on their financial stewardship of the taxpayers’ money — have little say over whether the kids over at the school system are spending it to buy gas or beer.

But what might be a financial waltz now could become a full-body-contact tango in 2014 when charter government kicks in.

A county executive and county council will face off against an elected school board, each side spurred by conflicting political expectations. Government must control spending, while educators are pushed to improve academic results, regardless of the cost.

Would a county executive risk defeat in the next election by proposing a property tax rate hike to pay for better schools? Maybe, but he or she would also have to face an aging baby-boomer constituency whose kids have already been through the school system. They might even want a tax cap.

But alas, that is a new dance for another day. For the moment, everyone should just calm down and let the school system make its case for the need for increased funding.

If enough residents agree, they will let the commissioners know that they want more money devoted to education. It will then be up to the commissioners to find a way to do it, perhaps meeting the school system somewhere in between in the process.

On the other hand, if the school system fails to make a compelling case, Alban and the school board will have to learn to do the limbo.