January 21, 2010

Counties seek blanket permission to cut school aid

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

There was so much bad news for county governments in the governor’s budget that they want to be able to pass some of the trouble down to their school systems.

The Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) will ask the legislature to lift the requirement that local governments maintain the level of public school spending for the coming year.

The counties had already been seeking legislation to make it easier for individual counties to apply for a waiver of this “maintenance of effort” law, but this change would give “blanket” permission for all counties to cut spending, though local school boards have been wary of reductions.

The maintenance of effort requirement mandates that jurisdictions give local schools at least the same amount next year as they did this year.

Continued funding cuts in the state budget proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley, combined with local revenue drops, led counties to propose the blanket waiver to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Wednesday.

“We’ve had [the blanket waiver proposal] in reserve,” MACo executive director Michael Sanderson told MarylandReporter.com. “With the degree we’re getting cut now this is probably a button we need to push.”

The General Assembly granted counties a similar general waiver during the deep recession of the early 1990s, and “counties again need a ‘blanket’ waiver to address comparable budgetary challenges,” MACo told the committee in written testimony.

The full board of MACo, with representatives from all 23 counties and Baltimore City, has yet to vote on the proposal, according to Ned Cheston, legislative director for Howard County.

But Wicomico County Executive Richard Pollitt said, “A blanket waiver may be the efficient way to handle” the problem. Wicomico, Montgomery and Prince George’s were each denied waiver requests by the state Board of Education last year.

Pollitt, who spent nine years on the county school board, said seeking the waiver is “personally abhorrent” to him and he does it with “a certain amount of shame.”

“We don’t want to cut education,” Pollitt told the senators. “When we go asking for a waiver, it means we can’t do our part.”

“We just think the current system isn’t working,” Pollitt said.

The penalty if a county does cut education funding is particularly onerous, he said. The schools lose not only the local dollars but any additional state aid they would have received.

“The children have a double hit,” Pollitt said.

He was part of a panel of county officials who described the severe financial stress on local governments. Many of them, like Wicomico, spend more than half their budgets on education.

O’Malley has not cut basic school aid, partly because of similar maintenance of effort requirements on states getting federal stimulus money. But state aid for other county functions has gone down 63 percent since 2007, MACo said.

The biggest hit to the counties has been the loss this year of 95% of their highway user revenues to pay for new roads and maintenance. O’Malley’s budget continues that deep cut to help balance the books.

“The counties are really getting whacked,” said Sen. James Robey, a budget committee member and former Howard County executive who served as MACo president. “I know how they’re squealing.”

Robey said he would be “interested in taking a look” at the waiver proposal, but he would also want to hear from the school boards about their concerns.