By Daniel Menefee
Education groups in Maryland are asking the legislature to require waivers from counties that fall below maintenance of effort funding levels.
Maintenance of effort mandates county governments to spend no less per student than the prior year or face penalties reducing annual increases in state aid. Counties facing fiscal challenges were required to apply for a waiver with the Maryland Board of Education.
Education advocacy groups are concerned about last year’s removal of the waiver requirement, which came after the state cuts it own education cuts. The General Assembly also lowered requirements for counties to fund only their share of “foundation aid,” which is about 75% of the local spending average in the four previous years.
Adam Mendelson, communications director for the Maryland State Education Association, said the waiver process should be mandatory and stricter standards applied to local governments before schools are penalized.
Mendelson lamented that school boards bear the penalties of local cuts but have no taxing authority to bring funding up to maintenance of effort levels in order to get state funding. “They are solely dependent on local government to meet the state’s funding requirements.”
He said that local governments’ taxing policies should be commensurate with school funding needs.
“Counties should be held accountable for cutting local taxes to the point where the school system is at risk,” Mendelson said. “The waiver process should take into account fiscal policy decisions that are absolutely in the control of county governments, as well as mitigating circumstances that are beyond their control.”
He said that Montgomery and Wicomico counties passed the litmus test last year because of local economic realities.
“It was clear that local economic conditions justified a waiver,” Mendelson said.
But Maryland State Education Association Legislative Director Sean Johnson said that Anne Arundel County cut property taxes last year and created a $12 million shortfall in the school budget.
“They would have been held to account if required to apply for a waiver,” Johnson said.
County Executive John Leopold insists he maintained the funding effort by following an attorney general’s opinion that allowed him to count debt service on county school buildings as part of education funding.
Andrea Mansfield, legislative director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said that many counties have raised taxes and cut spending, using their authority to shore up their budgets.
Counties can lower the maintenance of effort bar without fear
Counties have little incentive to apply for a waiver because the penalties are insignificant, said Mansfield.
“No state aid, no penalty,” Mansfield said. “The loss of local revenue has forced cuts in almost every aspect of local government, and education is the last thing we want to cut, but the counties have had no choice.”
Mansfield confirmed that county governments believe they can reset funding to the levels that were reduced last year, which is the process of “rebasing.”
According to a report from the Maryland State Education Association, the General Assembly gave no guidance for counties to re-set funding levels in the absence of a waiver. “This further diminishes the intent of the original law to protect school funding,” the report said.