ANNAPOLIS – School and county officials are mostly pleased with the recommendations of a commission set to overhaul the state’s education funding system, especially the call to end property tax caps in five counties.
Preliminary recommendations from the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence call for an additional $1.1 billion in education funding, with the money divvied to counties depending on wealth, special needs students and other issues. The committee will finalize its report Dec. 11.
Money may be hard to come by this year, as the state is part of the national recession, so the commission is looking at ways to fund the proposal without tapping conventional sources, including increasing sales taxes and legalizing slot machines in racetracks.
One of the funding alternatives is a recommendation that local governing bodies be granted the authority to override tax limits in five Maryland counties if the money is spent on education.
Some counties may be able to raise sales taxes and redistribute other funds if property caps aren’t repealed, but that may not be enough.
“If the recession hangs on for a couple more months,” said Sen. Robert Neall, D-Anne Arundel, “these counties are going to have trouble meeting their share of education funding.”
Four county limits – Anne Arundel, Prince George’s, Talbot and Wicomico – may only be overturned by referendum. Montgomery County’s cap may be adjusted by a favorable vote from seven of the nine council members.
Talk of lifting the limits doesn’t sit well with the Maryland Taxpayers Association, said President Kenneth Timmerman.
“This is an open door for rampant abuse for the taxpayers,” he said. “There are no problems today that money can solve. There is a need for better management.”
Timmerman called for better legislative oversight of the “top-heavy administration” at all levels in the school system.
But in Prince George’s, where schools have particularly struggled under its tax caps, district administrators are relieved the subject is under discussion.
“How can you produce equity among school districts?” said Iris Metts, Prince George’s County Schools superintendent, about tax limitations.
Prince George’s is opening nine new schools in the fall and operating costs would skyrocket if the cap is not eliminated, she said.
Even if the cap is repealed, increased property taxes may not provide much more funding in the county, said Commission Chairman Alvin Thornton, a former Prince George’s County School Board president.
The low-cost housing in parts of the county may not bring in enough to provide adequate funding, he said. County wealth per pupil from fiscal years 1997 to 2002 increased 1.6 percent, while the state average was about 16 percent.
“We’re going to insulate the children from that,” Thornton said. “We’re going to provide funding for all students.”
The commission recommended the state provide $305 million more by fiscal year 2007 to Prince George’s schools, the greatest increase for any county.
“In the whole, the proposal comes up with a much-improved formula,” said William Middleton, Wicomico County superintendent and commission member. “Some people will like it a lot and some people will have problems with it.”
Montgomery County, meanwhile, is not satisfied with the commission’s recommendation of a $70 million increase in state money by 2007.
“Although we can support some of the recommendations,” said Nancy King, Montgomery County School Board president, “we are deeply concerned that many of the conclusions and recommendations mask the real needs of our county.”
Because an adequate education is a state constitutional guarantee, the General Assembly could override tax caps if districts don’t increase per-pupil education funding from previous years, according to the commission’s staff.
Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Talbot counties all increased per-pupil appropriations between fiscal years 1997 and 2002, at about the state average of 26 percent. Wicomico County didn’t employ a cap during that time. Prince George’s County increased education funding about 8 percent per pupil.
If the commission’s recommendations are granted, Anne Arundel school officials aren’t sure the county council, which recently has been very fiscally conservative, would override its tax cap, said Greg Nourse, Anne Arundel County associate superintendent.
“It would help,” he said. “It would all depend on what the county council does.”
Like Montgomery County, Talbot County wouldn’t get as high an increase because of its wealth.
“The administration would support something like this provision to override tax limits if the money would go to education,” said Bryon Johnston, schools spokesman.