Commissioners say school letter improper

May 13, 1997



Staff Writers

A letter from school officials asking parents to support a county tax increase has drawn criticism from the Washington County Commissioners, who question using public money and students to promote a public agenda.

But the move was both legal and ethical, according the state attorney general's office.

Washington County Commissioner John S. Shank said Tuesday that his grandchildren brought the letter home from school Monday.

Signed by all five school board members, it asked parents to voice support for proposed property and income tax increases and a bigger funding share for schools at the county budget hearing on Wednesday.

Shank complained about "county monies spent for letters like this."

"This letter is worth $4,000 going to 19,000 school children. I think that money is better spent on books" and classroom supplies, Shank said.


"This could almost be considered using school children in politics," he said.

"I think that's inappropriate to use children to send messages," County Commissioner James R. Wade said.

County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers said "I think the school board owes the public an apology for using kids in a political way."

Bowers said Monday night that he received calls from parents irate about the letter.

The message wasn't political but alerted parents to the critical funding situation faced by the school board, said Board President B. Marie Byers.

Byers said teachers' salary increases and many school programs depend on additional funding.

Byers said Tuesday afternoon she hadn't received any complaints about the letter.

She said board member Andrew R. Humphreys told her he's received several calls thanking him and the board for the information because they hadn't realized education funding was linked to a proposed tax increase.

The letter was meant to reinforce the message the board presented in its "press conference," shown live on Antietam Cable Monday afternoon, said Schools Superintendent Wayne F. Gersen.

Board members asked the public to lobby the County Commissioners to fully fund the $53.3 million asked for the fiscal year 1998 budget.

The county budget allocates about $49.3 million - just under $1.9 million more than last year - for the schools' operating budget.

The County Commissioners have said $1.6 million of the additional money is riding on the anticipated $3 million revenue increase, he said.

Some case law states that school boards can legally spend money to support a tax increase to benefit schools, said Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe.

Rowe said she didn't see any ethical violation in the board's action.

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