A public war of name-calling erupted yesterday between Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan and county school board Chalrman Norman H. Saunders over a trip seven county school board members took to New Orleans last month at public expense.
The confrontatton became public yesterday when Hogan ordered his press aide to give reporters a letter he had written to Saunders which described the convention trip as a "junket."
The letter also branded the board members who went on the trip as "insensitive to the cost-reduction mandate" of TRIM, the voter-imposed ceiling on tax revenues in the county.
Saunders' reply was less subtle. "I think the voters might be better off going back to a (council-managed) form of government, rather than having a county executive," he said yesterday.
"If we are going to talk about conserving dollars, I think the voters in the county -- at least since the last election -- have been coming up a few dollars short in services from the county executive."
The ostensible subject of the dispute is the trip by board members to the American Association of School Administrators convention in New Orleans last Feb. 14-17. The convention trip, which cost the school board an estimated $3,100 in taxpayer funds was held the week before the annual New Orleans Mardi Gras festival.
Behind the fiery rhetoric of Hogan and Saunders, lies a more substantive conflict. Hogan currently is studying the school board's proposed $270 million budget and will submit it to the County Council -- with proposed changes -- next month.
Hogan frequently has said that the school budget, which will increase by at least $15 million after labor costs are included, is far too high in light of the existing budget restrictions imposed by TRIM.
Saunders and other board members just as frequently have called their budget "bare bones."
"I see this (debate) as being symbolic," said A. James Golato, one of two board members who did not take the trip to New Orleans.
"If I were faced with the necessity of cutting services under TRIM without offending the people that elected me, I, too, would select those items that seemed most visibly flimsy, and go after them first. It's a way of establishing a basis for making the substantive cuts later."
Hogan makes no mention of the school board's budget in the letter he released yesterday. He did, however, note that each school board member has an expense account of $4,900 annually, and asked the board to voluntarily reduce their accounts "and inform me by March 20."
"I have no intention of bringing this before the board," said Saunders. "Board of education members have their contracts confirmed and their salaries set by the governor, and by the great seal of the State of Maryland, not by Larry Hogan. We do not have to heel to his back and call."
Saunders described the convention as "a meeting of educators from across the United States and a collective-thinking-discussion type of thing."
Then he was back on the offensive. "I'm going to start sending Mr. Hogan some letters about sunshine laws which he ought to be enacting and following." Saunders promised. "The board members' actions are completely open and public, and we are completely acessible to the citizens. We don't hide in seclusion in a large massive office. Hogan hasn't held a public forum since he took office."