March 31, 2010

Sharp differences in House, Senate over local school cutbacks

Print More

By Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

The House and Senate have substantial differences to work out on legislation that would allow counties to cut back on school spending during tough economic times without losing state aid.

Both chambers have passed bills that set guidelines for waivers to the state’s “maintenance of effort” rules for local school funding. The issue has been hot this year, as three counties asked for and were denied waivers, leading the state education department to withhold some of its planned aid.

It appears that county leaders won’t get the broad flexibility they asked for, but either bill would likely satisfy local school leaders’ objections to waivers allowing all 24 local jurisdictions in Maryland to cut funding when revenues have fallen sharply.

“We didn’t want criteria to be met that would give a pass to all 24 jurisdictions,” said John Woolums, lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. “We always want it to be a case-by-case analysis.”

Counties were supposed to ask for waivers for the next fiscal year by March 31, Wednesday. The proposed legislation pushes that date to May.

The Senate bill essentially follows the proposal of a workgroup set up by Assembly leaders to come up with recommendations for local aid. It would expand the criteria to ask for a waiver to include a broad economic downturn, the history of a county in boosting education spending, and other factors.

The House bill would push any penalty back by a year to give counties time to plan for the reduction. It would also send an appeal of a waiver to the State School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, rather than to the state school board.

Del. Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery, said the House and Senate would probably pass their own bills and work through the differences in a conference committee. Kaiser said she believes the Senate might keep the House bill intact, and she thinks it’s especially important that the penalty be pushed back by a year.

“We thought that gives school systems time to adjust to a cut,” she said. Kaiser heads the House Ways and Means Committee’s education subcommittee.

Sen. Ed. Kasemeyer, D-Baltimore-Howard, was the lead sponsor of the Senate bill. He said before he testified on his bill before the Ways and Means committee that he was still processing the House changes, but Senators had been comfortable with their own version.

“We wanted to stay where we were,” he said.

The Maryland Association of Counties would probably be happier with the House bill, Executive Director Michael Sanderson said by e-mail, but he doesn’t think either bill would solve their problems. The counties wanted much more wiggle room, but the one-year penalty delay would be helpful, he said.