November 6, 2009

Major battle looms over local school funding

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

A major battle is likely in the upcoming session of the legislature over how much Maryland’s local governments must contribute to their local school systems.

The Maryland Association of Counties is circulating draft legislation that would revamp the state’s rule for “maintenance of effort,” the law that requires counties to fund their local schools at the same level as they did in the previous year. Some local school officials are worried that the change could lead to a significant decline in school spending around the state.

Currently, counties must petition the statewide Board of Education for a waiver to allow them to reduce education spending. This year, the board rejected requests by Montgomery, Prince George’s and Wicomico counties to pare down their contributions to public schools. Montgomery County is considering a lawsuit against the state on the issue, as The Gazette and The Washington Post Reported today.

“There was real frustration” with the board’s rejections, said Leslie Knapp, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties. She said the county governments feel “the waiver process was unfair.”

Under the draft legislation, counties would be allowed to reduce their funding to local school system by 5 percent under three conditions.

Waivers could be granted if the revenue estimates for the state goes down, as they did this year; if state aid to public schools is reduced; or if a county’s property tax base declines, requiring an increase in the tax rate to maintain revenues. Counties could appeal a rejection of their waiver requests to a state administrative law judge.

Sens. Richard Madaleno and Robert Garagiola, both Montgomery County Democrats, are also planning legislation to make it easier for counties to get waivers.

Representatives of local systems were already fighting the proposals at a hearing Thursday on maintenance of effort and local school funding by the legislature’s joint workgroup on fiscal relationships.

“We believe it should not [be] so easy that everybody get” a waiver, said Carl Roberts, executive director of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland, which represents all 24 school systems. “Each of these counties needs to be judged on their own merits.”

Cathy Allen, president of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and a member of the St. Mary’s County board, said her group “urges the General Assembly to reject proposals to all local governments to drop significantly below current funding levels. MABE does not believe that all local governments should be granted the same waiver,” regardless of taxing capacity, tax effort and budget surpluses.

Weakening the maintenance of effort, and making the counties pick up some of the cost of teacher pensions – now funded totally by the state –  as some legislators are proposing, “could bring Maryland’s outstanding public school system crashing to the ground,” Allen said.