The County Council is just putting the finishing touches on both the operating budget and the capital budget for Fiscal Year 2017. By the time we vote to finalize (“strike”) the budget, we will have considered dozens of amendments in an effort to establish a spending plan for the county that is comprehensive, prudent and affordable.
Pursuant to our County Charter, which you might call our “local constitution”, the budget is developed by the County Executive and presented to the County Council for approval. The Council in turn generally cannot add to the spending plan but can only vote to cut spending from the budget which has been presented by the Administration.
As with any discussion of county finances, I am compelled to remind myself of my promise that I will never vote for a tax increase of any kind whatever. This grows out of my own belief, as well as the view of the overwhelming majority of those I represent, that taxes at all levels of government, including local taxes, are already too burdensome on taxpayers trying to survive difficult economic circumstances.
As with previous years, the FY17 budget is dominated by spending related to public education. In fact, the budget for public schools consumes over $736 million dollars, which represents more than fifty-one percent of the operating budget. But despite this significant allocation of resources to the school system, there remains significant unhappiness among those who receive these funds.
For example, last month the Council conducted public sessions at two county high schools for the purpose of taking testimony from citizens regarding budget priorities. During both of these sessions teachers, administrators and school employees registered their discontent and disagreement with the funding priorities presented by the County Executive. Despite the fact that his proposed budget included more funding than required under the “maintenance of effort” rules, and despite the inclusion of a two percent pay raise, Mr. Schuh came under fire for insensitivity to the needs and requirements of teachers and students.
Many parents and even some students made impassioned arguments for the immediate funding of three particular elementary school building projects. Others focused on convincing the Council that a new high school for Crofton is a priority that must not be ignored. Still others demanded that we use our influence to get the school start times moved back so that high schoolers can get enough sleep.
But perhaps the most compelling argument came from a young lady who does not attend public school. After waiting the better part of three hours, a 15 year-old Annapolis Area Christian School student came to the microphone and offered a legal – in fact a Constitutional – argument. This attracted my attention, despite the advancing hour.
She began by thanking her parents, explaining that they work very hard to pay tuition at the private school she attends. She further explained that her family is forced to “pay double” because their property tax is collected and used for a school system from which they receive no benefit.
And since a failure to pay property tax results in property confiscation, she argued that the public school system acts as an education monopoly which property owners are forced to fund.
Quoting the Maryland Constitution (Declaration of Rights, Article 41) she pointed out that the supreme law of our state refers to monopolies as “odious” things. It goes on to say that monopolies are “contrary to the spirit of a free government and the principles of commerce”. The Constitution concludes that monopolies “ought not to be suffered”.
She suggested that this “odious” education monopoly be brought to an end so that the “suffering” will be abated. She asked the Council to adopt legislation exempting from property tax those who do not use the public schools.
Perhaps this is a worthy discussion. The unhappiness of teachers who feel that they are not properly appreciated nor recompensed may be an impetus to achieving a free market arena for education. It may be that undoing the monopoly will lead to a (teaching/learning) marketplace that can more richly reward both deserving students and those who teach them well. In any event, it’s a shame to spend over $700 million and still have everyone unhappy.