School buses, tip jars and Maryland's structural deficit

November 07, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

Odds and ends from a columnist's notebook:

Readers continue to raise questions about a recent incident in which a 5-year-old Washington County student was let off a school bus two miles from his home.

Even though the child was found unharmed, the event triggered a wave of anxiety among parents who wondered if such a thing could happen to their children.

The school system has responded with an announcement reiterating its bus policy, which amounts to requiring students who ride a bus other than their regular one to have a note, signed by a school administrator.


The note must include the student's name, bus number and the drop-off location. Without such a note, the student shouldn't be allowed to board the bus.

The 5-year-old apparently did have such a note, but last week a spokesman for the system couldn't say if all the rules were followed.

The school system is saying that although the public might be upset by the lack of detail released after its review is concluded, "by law, the school system cannot release details of personnel matters."

I've seen the cloak of "personnel" used over the years for reasons that I didn't believe were personnel-related.

Some local governments have discussed departmental reorganizations in closed session, when the only thing at issue was the structure of government, not any individual's performance.

Any sanction given to the bus driver or others involved in the incident is certainly a personnel matter. But a factual account of what happened shouldn't be.

I raised that question last week with the Maryland Attorney General's office, but was told that that agency's job was not to interpret the law for me, but for its clients, in this case the state Department of Education.

I have two questions:

· How will the school system verify that the bus policy is being followed?

· How can parents be assured that the problem has been fixed if they don't know what went wrong in the first place?

The attempt by Howard County Democratic Del. Shane Pendergrass to strip the state's western counties of their control over tip-jar gambling also raises some interesting questions.

Her statement that she was just looking for revenue to close the state's structural deficit sounds naive, but she didn't target gaming statewide, including bingo, where a small percentage of each game might provide the state with a large sum.

Did it just not occur to Pendergrass that a bill targeting only Western Maryland was unfair? When I first heard about the bill, I assumed it was an administration ploy to get everyone behind Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget and slots proposals.

We've certainly seem that sort of pressure before. Back in 2002, state Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore, told state Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington, that if he didn't vote for a 34-cent-per-pack increase in the state's cigarette tax, she would work to kill funding for a $2 million air-service subsidy and $12.4 million grant for the University System of Maryland's Hagerstown campus.

What can Washington County do to immunize itself against such political blackmail? It can elect at least one Democrat who has an interest in rising to a position of true leadership.

Until Pendergrass and those like her have something to fear if they meddle in Washington County affairs, it will continue to happen.

Ironically, that 2002 deal for a tobacco tax increase was a key factor in the creation of the state's structural deficit. That 34-cent hike was designated to fund the Thornton Commission recommendations to aid education.

But that only covered the Thornton program for 18 months. Couple that with the legislature's decision to cut income taxes in 1999 without also making budget cuts to cover the lost revenue and by 2007, you've got a $1.7 billion hole in your budget.

The Annapolis-Anne Arundel County Chamber last month issued a statement on the structural deficit. It did not oppose all of O'Malley's tax-increase proposals, but did warn that a special session, in which lawmakers would have to act without year-end financial figures or a budget to see where cuts would be made, might not be the best way to solve the problem.

The Washington County delegation needs to be alert to the possibility that lawmakers out to protect their own programs might see Western Maryland's as ripe for poaching.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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