PICK ANY county or city in this region, and you'll find local leaders poring over numbers -- looking at every line of each budget proposal in search of ways to cut spending by dimensions none of them has ever had to think about before. For the latest from one such exasperated but diligent local body, we take you to the Montgomery County Board of Education, where members -- clearly tortured by their task -- have spent long hours chopping dollars from some of their most prized programs. The most discouraging part of their effort must be that a good deal more may have to be cut before they're through.
In an 8 1/2-hour session this week, the members came away drained but able to point to $18 million in cuts from a budget proposal of $782 million proposed last month by Superintendent Harry Pitt. His proposal, amounting to an 11 percent increase over current spending, was intended to pay for a few new programs and to cover an estimated increase of 5,000 students in the system next year. In the past, board members used to add to -- not subtract from -- the superintendent's proposal before sending it on to the county executive for recommendations that then go to the county council for action. This time, Mr. Pitt himself advised the board to cut millions of dollars from his proposal, citing word from County Executive Neal Potter that as much as $70 million might have be cut. This would leave the budget with a 1.5 percent increase over current spending.
That's a tall order, but filling it is a must. Superintendent Pitt says this may mean eliminating pay raises for teachers and other employees -- a grim move but one other jurisdictions are facing as well. "The system will not be the same system it was a year ago," Mr. Pitt has said, but the cutting "doesn't have to be a knockout blow. We'll live to fight another day."
School board members have said in a resolution adopted unanimously that the county council could help matters by undoing a limitation on property tax increases that was approved in a November referendum. The limitation, which holds property tax revenue increases to the rate of inflation, was a bad idea in the first place; but with assessments stabilizing or falling, there may be no pot of gold here for schools, anyway. For now, the cutting must continue -- and the teachers and other employees should be prepared to share the sacrifice that their counterparts all through the region are likely to be making. At this painful point, the board members doing the nasty work deserve understanding and encouragement for acting responsibly in the face of rough economic times.