ANNAPOLIS – Legislation that would sharply reduce the funds county governments are required to give local school boards is pitting counties against public school officials at the Maryland Statehouse.
At stake is as much as $33 million next year.
The most contentious piece of the bill affects “maintenance of effort,” which requires each county to give its school board at least the same funding per pupil as the previous year. If a county fails to comply, it loses any increase in its own state aid.
The legislation would allow the county to reduce its funding for new students to 60 percent of the rate at which they fund their existing students.
For example, under current law, if a county with 1,000 students spends $6,000 per student this year, it must spend the same amount per student the following year, regardless of enrollment increases. The bill would allow that county to fund a new student at 60 percent, or $3,600.
David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said the maintenance of effort requirement is draining county treasuries at the expense of other services.
County governments get most of their money through property taxes, which the Department of Assessments and Taxation has estimated will grow at only 1.3 percent in the next fiscal year.
“The pendulum has swung,” Bliden said at a House Ways and Means committee meeting Thursday. “Times aren’t that good.”
On average, two-thirds of county revenue growth in Maryland will be consumed by maintenance of effort requirements in fiscal year 1997, according to an analysis by the counties association.
But school officials are worried about the potential loss of funding, which could total almost $400 million over five years.
“There is no way that our school system, nor other growing school systems, can absorb these major funding reductions without it necessarily damaging the quality of educational services to our students,” said Dr. Jerome Clark, Prince George’s County Public Schools superintendent.
Marcy Canavan, executive director of the Maryland Education Coalition, a parents’ advocacy group, was unconvinced by assurances that county governments will not back away from funding education, even though those assurances came from Bliden and Dr. Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools.
Canavan said the bill would “destroy education funding and county commitment to it.”
A second piece of the bill would require school boards to more stringently report to the county government if they spent money allocated for one program on a different program. The bill would also require the school board to notify the county of anticipated major budget changes.
Dutch Ruppersberger, Baltimore County executive and president of the counties association, stressed that these requirements will make school boards more accountable while allowing them to retain authority over education decisions.
Ruppersberger said the changes will also open lines of communication.
But Del. Carolyn Howard, D-Prince George’s, disagreed.
“I welcome the strengthening of the relationship between county government and school boards,” Howard said. “But this bill would not accomplish that. You can’t mandate a partnership.”
Some opponents of the bill, including Clark and Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, called the stricter reporting requirements a county attempt to micromanage board of education budgets.
But it could be worse, Pence acknowledged. Grasmick testified that the original draft of the legislation would have dramatically changed the ability of local boards of education and superintendents to make decisions.
That provision in the legislation was dropped while the reduction in maintenance of effort funds was left intact in a compromise among groups including the counties association, the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland and the Maryland State Department of Education.
Washington County Schools Superintendent Wayne F. Gersen, who is legislative chairman of the superintendents’ group, called the compromise exemplary.
“We were willing to accept lower funding levels as long as Boards of Education maintained the full responsibility for how those reduced funds were spent,” Gersen said in a written statement.
But the compromise left Pence feeling that education officials had sold out.
“I’m dismayed and perplexed that the Maryland Association of School Boards of Education and others would be willing to go along with this compromise,” he said.
Pence said he was especially bothered because students are just beginning to move towards meeting Maryland School Assessment Performance Program goals, which are state mandated performance standards.
Theresa Williamson, president of the Washington County Council of PTAs, said the struggle over this bill is really a fight for control of schools.
“With an increase in the power struggle for who’s in control, the individuals being hurt are the students,” Williamson said.
Pence said that another piece of legislation in draft form would bar counties from reducing maintenance of effort funds until every student in the district had met state learning goals. “Until you have achieved that,” Pence said, “you haven’t met your mission.” -30-