Tuesday night St. Mary's County government's 2010 budget hearings were televised. What a relief. I used to have to attend.
When I first attended -- this would have been in the mid-1980s -- the very richest man in the county was a county commissioner. He held fast to a policy of absolutely no property tax increases whatsoever, no matter what, come hell or high water. The tax rate was close to the lowest in the state, which saved most property owners some bucks but saved him bundles.
Two groups of people typically testified: Parents who wanted more money for recreational activities for their children. And teachers. The people who wanted more parks and sports asked that more money be spent on them. The teachers were more outspoken. They asked for tax hikes. They were working in schools from hell suffering from high water.
Public schools were visibly crumbling. The elementary school closest to my home had buckets collecting rainwater in classrooms and down the hallways. It was the solution to leaking roofs in other schools as well. Local teachers were among the lowest paid in the state. Recruiting and retaining teachers were Herculean tasks. Classrooms bulged with well more than 30 students at even the youngest grades. Closets in some schools were turned into instructional space.
It took another decade before all the roofs were repaired, new schools were under construction, teacher salaries became competitive and class sizes regularly fell below 30 students. The richest man in the county was still the richest man in the county but he wasn't a commissioner anymore. Term limits.
Teachers were the driving force of the changes. Some years recreational proponents gave way to library patrons who other years were overshadowed by sheriff deputies who other years were outdone by pleas from senior citizens to keep tax rates low. But every year teachers made the biggest show, created the headlines, demanded that St. Mary's County cough up the money to keep its educational system competitive. And they were successful.
Even during the years taxes were reduced -- in the late 1990s -- and the years they were raised to compensate for the depleted coffers -- in the early 2000s -- the teachers came one after another to speak for increased educational funding. They insisted, one after another, that the increasingly well educated population would support paying more for the benefits of quality education.
But this year -- and maybe it was the medium, maybe the television itself warped the message -- but this year, even as they asked for more money, a vocal cadre of teachers wielding umbrellas applauded an even larger cadre of speakers calling for tax cuts.
The umbrellas symbolized the teacher's perennial call for more spending on education. But as the same teachers applauded those calling for tax cuts the umbrellas reminded me of the old leaking roofs. That past was remedied by teachers and parents who insisted that the average home owner would forgo their relatively modest savings from reductions of pennies on the tax rate in exchange for a quality school system.
Of course, the richest man in the county would save a great deal more from those pennies than the average home owner. He's gone now. But I thought about him Tuesday night and imagined how he would have grinned at such a turn.