ANNAPOLIS – Eastern Shore school superintendents implored lawmakers Friday to support at least a down payment to implement an expensive school reform plan ignored by the governor’s budget.
If lawmakers don’t act on the recommendations by the so-called Thornton Commission, the issue could end up in court, school officials said at an Eastern Shore Delegation meeting.
“I believe if you put (the study) on the shelf and let it collect dust, you’ll deal with it in the courts,” said Wicomico County Superintendent Bill Middleton, a commission member.
Eastern Shore schools need more money for transportation, special education and full-day kindergarten to provide an adequate education for their students, school officials said.
Although Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s $22 billion budget included a $161 million increase for existing education programs, no money was allocated for the recommendations by the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence.
Maryland’s schools need another $130 million in next year’s budget and $1.1 billion over the next five years, according to the commission’s two-year study.
The commission also recommended that the state contribute a greater share of school funding and that it distribute money more equitably, bringing poor districts in line with more affluent ones. The plan calls for consolidating dozens of state aid programs into a system of block grants, allowing districts spending flexibility. It also provides money for statewide full-day kindergarten, special education programs and transportation needs.
In the last several years, Eastern Shore schools have faced increasing transportation costs while state funding has dwindled, said Dorchester County Superintendent Spicer Bell. Rising diesel fuel prices and increasing mileage to new rural developments have added to the increasing transportation costs, Bell said.
Also, schools were forced to cut other services to accommodate transportation needs when the state slashed $55 million from its school budget in 1993, he said, adding the state never made up the difference.
Delegate Norman H. Conway, D-Wicomico, said he and Delegate Howard “Pete” Rawlings, D-Baltimore, were drafting a bill addressing transportation funding. But Conway said he wasn’t sure how the bill would work out financially.
The state was predicted to have a $521 million revenue shortfall for 2003, and the governor’s budget is designed to close the gap.
Special education costs are also getting out of hand with federal and state governments not providing enough support, said Somerset School Superintendent Mike Thomas. In Somerset County, local municipalities have been funding 77 percent of the costs related to special education, Thomas said.
“It’s an enormous burden,” he said. “It takes away from other services.”
If full-day kindergarten were to begin statewide, additional funding would be needed for more classrooms and other changes, said Worcester School Superintendent Jon Andes.
Some counties, such as Caroline County, already have full-day kindergarten.
Eastern Shore schools need more money now because distribution of the governor’s school funding increase is based on enrollment increases, said Allan Gorsuch, director of the Eastern Shore of Maryland Educational Consortium.
“At the Eastern Shore, where enrollment is flat or decreasing, we don’t get any money,” Gorsuch said. “It’s a critical situation for the schools.”