With voter-approved charter government coming to Frederick County in December 2014, some stakeholders are already pondering if and how the transition will change the already strained budgetary relations between the county and the public school system.
Some believe the new form of government that will replace the five-member Frederick County Board of Commissioners with a county executive and a seven-member council will give the jurisdiction a stronger voice statewide in advocating for precious school funding.
Others, however, fear that the new charter will give too much power to the county executive and may ultimately limit the public’s opportunity to participate in the decision-making process that affects school operations.
Janice Spiegel, a former president of the Frederick County PTA council and a longtime school board observer, is among those who harbor such reservations — partly because she said the new form of government could drive county and school officials further apart.
“I think it is going to decrease the camaraderie between the two boards,” she said. “That is what happened in Montgomery County and Howard County.”
Although they have had disputes in recent years, the commissioners and seven-member Frederick County Board of Education traditionally have had a positive relationship based on ongoing communication, Spiegel said.
The current school board and the commissioners meet jointly once a month, and the commissioners have always had a liaison to represent them at school board meetings, she said.
Under the new form of government, it will be difficult to maintain that relationship, according to Spiegel.
Council members will be paid only $22,500 a year, so they may not want to spent time at joint meetings or regular school board meetings, she said.
And, she noted, other Maryland counties with charter government do not typically have a liaison to their school boards.
“Any kind of joint meetings they are going to go to the wayside,” she said. “And this is going to limit the opportunity for the public to weigh in.”
But others are more optimistic.
Gary Brennan, the president of the Frederick County Teachers Association, said he believes the new form of government could be beneficial because having a county executive will increase the school system’s ability to advocate for its needs at the state level.
Although the county has a legislative delegation to represent it before the General Assembly in Annapolis, it still has no one to speak for its needs when Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley meets with county executives, Brennan said.
“We [the teacher’s union] did support this change,” he said. “What we want is a county executive who has a vision for the future of education in this county. ... He or she will have to answer for the decisions [he or she] has to make.”
The door to change was opened on Nov. 6 when the majority of registered county voters backed the proposed charter.
Baltimore city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Dorchester, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s Talbot and Wicomico counties all have charter governments.
Under the new charter, county voters will elect a county executive to oversee the various agencies that make up the executive branch. The county executive will make $95,000 per year and be limited to two, four-year terms.
The council, with five members elected by district and two at-large, will serve four-year terms to pass laws and handle the legislative business of the county, with members serving no more than three consecutive terms.
But unlike Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, where council members have the power to increase or reduce the county executive’s budget, the Frederick County council will only be able to cut the executive’s spending plan.
That has raised some fear that a county executive who is unsupportive of education could end up dramatically cutting school funding without immediate repercussions. Under the commissioner form of government, the five commissioners need a majority vote to finalize the county’s annual budget, of which more than half goes to education.
But Brennan said he believes there will be ways to circumvent that scenario. For example, council members could potentially force a county executive to negotiate school funding by cutting funding to areas that he or she wants, he said.
And the existence of the council will add a layer of oversight over the actions of the county executive that does not exist in the commissioner form of government, he said.
“He or she will have to answer for the decisions they have to make,” Brennan said.
John Woolums, director of governmental relations at the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, echoed that opinion.
“County executives are more often than not champions of the needs of their school systems,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have very productive dealings with county executives.”
Even if a county executive wants to reduce education funding, it can only be cut to a certain level under state law.
Education funding in Maryland is protected by the Maintenance of Effort law, which requires counties to spend no less on the education of each child than they did the year before. If a jurisdiction fails to meet that requirement, it has to pay a penalty to the state.
But faced with the recession in the last few years, it has been tougher to meet that requirement, which has built up tension among school board members, county councils and county executives around the state.
Although school boards have argued that they need money above the maintenance of effort requirement to meet a growing number of unfunded mandates, county government officials have been struggling with their own budget deficits and trying to ballance the needs of schools with other services they have to fund, such as public safety or roads.
In Montgomery County, for example, the county council and the school board have been butting heads over maintenance of effort funding for years, leading the school system to threaten to sue the county when it was not ready to provide funding at the mandated level.
“That’s when it started to get really rocky,” Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) said.
“It is not to say that all of us don’t support public education,” Ervin said. “But we have a million residents in the county who expect services that they pay taxes for.”
Ervin, however, admitted that such tensions can occur between county and school officials, regardless of the form of government.
‘A broken system’
Frederick County commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young (R) agrees that the county government’s structure isn’t the issue.
Young said he believes that tensions between county government officials and school boards are caused by a statewide system that requires counties to provide money for education but gives them no authority on how to spend it.
“We have, in my opinion, a broken system,” said Young, who believes that county and school officials will continue to argue over funding for the next four to six years of slim budgets, regardless of the form of government.
“It is all going to depend on the personalities,” added Young, who failed in his effort to get more fiscally conservative members elected to the school board in this year’s election.
And, Young said, because the county executive will have the most power in setting the budget for the county and the school system, the Frederick County Teachers Association will do everything in its power to ensure that county residents elect an executive who is more likely to put money into education.
Brennan doesn’t dispute that.
“The teachers association will be involved because we care about this county,” he said. “I think it will be critical who our first county executive is going to be.”
Frederick County Schools Superintendent Theresa Alban said the school system will work hard from the beginning to establish a positive relationship with the newly elected council members and county executive.
In Howard County, where Alban worked before coming to Frederick County, the council meets quarterly with the board and school superintendent, while the county executive works closely with the superintendent, she said.
“The county executive in Howard County was very supportive of education and had a positive relationship with the school board,” Alban said in an email.
“If the voters want to see the school budget cut, then it really does not matter which form of government is in place,” she wrote. “I am hopeful that our community will continue to value the importance of our public schools and will elect public officials who support the school system's needs.”