ANNAPOLIS – After a three-month argument over $254 million in aid to Baltimore schools, legislators from Maryland’s D.C. suburbs claim victory, saying that $167 million in additional funds to the state’s other school systems was due to their resistance.
But more significant than the money, the lawmakers say, was how it was won.
“We have formed a coalition that has never been formed,” Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery, said at a press conference highlighting the achievements of the Montgomery and Prince George’s county delegations. “Perhaps now we can see some of the weight coming to the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in Maryland.”
Maryland’s government historically has been dominated by Baltimore-area politicians. But politicians from the D.C. suburbs said that the past session showed hints of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties stepping forward, particularly in the school debate.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said that the past 90 days “marked the beginning of a strong, new political alliance between Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties — one that will shift the balance of power in this state.”
Duncan said Prince George’s fiscal problems, coupled with the difficulties encountered by the Montgomery school system, drove the two jurisdictions together this session.
Prince George’s County, working under the toughest property tax cap in the D.C. suburbs, still struggles to comply with court-ordered desegregation standards. Neighboring Montgomery has its own problems, including large numbers of non-English speaking students.
The issue of school funding confronted the Legislature when Baltimore leaders and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state, claiming the city’s declining school system did not provide children with an adequate education.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening negotiated a settlement of $254 million over five years, a deal that needed legislative approval.
But the D.C. suburbs wanted comparable funding for their schools, and their lawmakers threatened to vote against the Baltimore settlement.
Montgomery and Prince George’s together hold 45 votes in the House of Delegates — over half of the 71 votes any bill needs to pass. Throughout the session, they proved how powerful those votes could be, repeatedly delaying the Baltimore settlement because leadership was uncertain the bill would pass.
When the votes were counted on the session’s final day, the bill passed the House by a 78-61 margin.
But in one of the budget bills that also passed as the session waned, Glendening included $33.4 million for Maryland’s other 23 schools districts. The governor has promised similar allocations for the following four years.
Prince George’s Delegation Chairman Nathaniel Exum, a Democrat, said the two counties had asked for $44 million for the next year, “and $33.4 million was allotted to the entire state because of our efforts.”
Ray Feldmann, the governor’s deputy press secretary, disputed how much credit the two counties could claim for the ultimate aid figure. “Absolutely none of it,” he said. “The governor did not bargain for the Baltimore City school settlement.”
Feldmann said the five-year, $167 million package resulted from the governor’s calculations of what the schools needed and the state could afford.
Feldmann said the facts of the case prove the governor is working for Maryland’s schools. “What gets lost in the rhetoric of this city school debate is what the governor has done [for Prince George’s and Montgomery],” he said.
According to Feldmann, Montgomery County has gotten $94 million in school construction funds over the past three years, more than any other county. He also said that state education aid over the same period has grown 6.5 percent in Montgomery and 6.9 percent in Prince George’s, while Baltimore’s has only increased by 4.1 percent.
“When people say the governor has not done for Montgomery and Prince George’s, the numbers simply disprove that,” Feldmann said.
Nonetheless, members of the two delegations were disappointed that they were not given the $44 million a year they requested.
“If the governor had wanted to, he could have done it,” Exum said. Montgomery’s Duncan threatened to follow Baltimore’s route: “This debate has just begun. It means that we may now have to look to the courts for some remedy to these problems.” -30-