When I had earlier commented on Ken Ulman's suggestion that "should there be a pension shift" (of approximately $43.8 million by 2014) the bill should be passed on to the Board of Education, I was accused of taking a cheap shot. The Baltimore Sun has made a more developed "cheap shot" along the same lines as those noted in my earlier post, painting Ken Ulman as a political schemer caught in the act of scheming. The piece can be summed up in these two paragraphs:
Ultimately, though, Mr. Ulman is playing a game of semantics. Howard County's school system, like those in the rest of Maryland, doesn't have the ability to levy taxes. It submits a budget request to the executive, and he decides how much the county can afford. Whether the bill for teacher pensions is sent directly to him or first to the school system, he's ultimately the one who would have to pay it.
What he's asking for is political cover, but that doesn't change the fact that he is the one who would decide whether it is more important to maintain existing programs in the school system, avoid further cuts to public safety and other general government functions or keep the county's property tax rate stable. It's understandable that Mr. Ulman would want to pass that buck, but no matter how the legislature couches a shift in teacher pension costs, it stops with him.
After online discussions with an individual whose understanding of such matters is much more developed than my own, I think The Sun (and this blogger) is slightly off base. The issue is not "passing the buck" as much as it has to do with gamesmanship. The "maintenance of effort" law requires our Counties to shield their education budgets from the "pound of flesh" algorithms necessary with an austerity budget. Almost counter-intuitively, while our public safety budget is on the chopping block, our educators are talking about new textbooks, computers, and school buildings. That's not to say that the Board does not have to make "tough choices," but let's all remember that Superintendent Cousins refunded the county approximately $4 million last year for allocated monies that were not used.
What Ken is trying to do here is reset the budgetary relationship between the Board of Ed and the County. The Counties are on a financial treadmill, established by Thornton, that will keep them paying even when belt-tightening is required. This is his way of turning the treadmill off. If his argument holds, and pensions are either dumped wholly or partially in the laps of those who set the education budget, he has room to negotiate along the lines of the cuts that have already been made to the County budget. Right now, there is no room for negotiation. If the pensions shift entirely to the County, the Board keeps their annual bump, and the County has to stretch dollars even more. Taxes will be raised under either circumstance, but I think the tax hike will be much less significant if Ken has the opportunity to negotiate a budget for the Board of Education that includes teacher pensions, as opposed to a continued jog on the "maintenance of effort" treadmill of pain.