By Megan Poinski
A bill providing more reasons to excuse a county from maintaining its public education budget when financial times are difficult received wide support in the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday.
The bill adds more potential exceptions to the state’s maintenance of effort law, which requires that counties at the very least maintain their per student funding levels for education each year. A similar bill was proposed last year, but died when the General Assembly adjourned.
Del. Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, brought the bill forward on behalf of the Joint Legislative Workgroup to Study State, County and Municipal Fiscal Relations. As it stands, she said, counties can apply to the State Board of Education for a waiver from the maintenance of effort law. In deciding whether to grant the waiver, the board can consider external environmental factors like loss of major businesses or industries, county tax bases, the rate of inflation relative to the growth of student populations, and the county’s ability to raise revenue.
The bill requires that those four items are considered, and adds other factors that must be considered in waiver applications. These include broad economic downturns, a county’s history of exceeding maintenance of effort, agreements about waivers between county councils and the school board, and significant reductions in state aid.
Jones said that Prince George’s, Montgomery and Wicomico counties have all applied for waivers during the recession.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett told delegates that over the last decade, the county has contributed $600 million more to public education than it was required to under maintenance of effort law. Yet in 2009, when the recession strained Montgomery County’s budget – and the county cut employees’ cost of living adjustments, postponed raises, furloughed employees, eliminated about 1,000 positions through attrition, and increased property, energy and cell phone taxes – it was not granted a waiver from the school funding levels. He said he felt that the only way he could have received a waiver under those circumstances was if the economy in Montgomery County had completely collapsed.
“We should not have to respond to that kind of challenge,” Leggett said. “The intent is fine, but the law as written is not flexible.”
Education advocates and the Maryland Association of Counties all supported the proposal. Del. Frank Turner, D-Howard County, asked MACo Executive Director Michael Sanderson if he has an idea of how many counties may be applying for waivers to the maintenance of effort law this year. Sanderson said he wasn’t sure, but he didn’t think that this bill would encourage counties to get out of the funding requirement.
“The last years have been difficult,” Sanderson said. “No one wants to go to Baltimore pleading to underfund the schools.”
John Woolums, director of government relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said that his organization supports the bill. While maintaining education funding is important, and the maintenance of effort law ensures that school funding is a collaboration between the state and local jurisdictions, some changes are needed.
“This bill represents a reasonable consensus effort to reform the process and let counties come forward and request maintenance of effort waivers,” Woolums said.
Bob Stewart, executive director of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in Montgomery County, which represents municipal and county employees, testified that making it difficult for counties to waive their maintenance of effort requirements means deeper cuts to other county services. As budgets for public safety and county services got slashed, Stewart said, the maintenance of effort requirement required the public education budget in Montgomery County to grow.
Several potential amendments were discussed by witnesses and delegates at Wednesday’s hearing. They include putting the power to decide on maintenance of effort waivers in an agency other than the State Board of Education, and making any financial penalty a county may receive for not funding education enough due the next year so it can be included in the following year’s budget.