ANNAPOLIS – About $45 million of a landmark education plan was excluded from the $23.8 billion state operating budget Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. presented Wednesday, a decision that drew the ire of some legislators and educators.
The money would have gone to some large county school systems – including Prince George’s, Montgomery and Baltimore City – to compensate for higher costs of education and living.
The Attorney General’s Office determined last fall that funding the county cost differences was not mandated by the $1.3 billion Thornton plan passed two years ago by the General Assembly. Despite deleting those funds, state support of primary and secondary education increased $326 million to more than $3.6 billion.
“I am thrilled about this funding for public education,” State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said. “I’m supporting the legal opinion that was rendered.”
But at least one lawmaker said Ehrlich’s exclusion could prompt legal action.
“I would imagine somebody would come forward with (a lawsuit),” said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore, chairman of the city’s Senate delegation. “People are going to take every avenue to receive an appropriate education.”
Some legislators said the Attorney General nitpicked the language of a popular education bill just to balance the budget.
“There’s no question in the original legislation (the cost-of-education index) was supposed to be funded, and this ill-conceived Attorney General’s opinion misinterpreted the guidelines,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
“It’s a nuance by a hair that is being used to hurt children,” added Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, county Senate delegation chairman.
Other lawmakers said Ehrlich should have fully funded the Thornton plan because he promised he would, even though it was not required.
“According to what he said in his campaign, he should (have) and he didn’t,” said Delegate Neil Quinter, D-Howard, author of a letter to Ehrlich signed by more than 60 delegates in support of full funding.
Ehrlich dismissed questions about why the $45 million was not included in the budget and said all of the mandated Thornton funds were incorporated.
Approval of slot machines, he said, would pay for the cost of education differences and that was his campaign platform.
“We support Thornton with a funding mechanism called slots,” he said.
Last year, the Maryland Senate approved installing slot machines at four state racetracks, but the bill was killed in the House.
Ehrlich said Wednesday he will introduce slot machine legislation, and the battle over the issue is expected to dominate legislative discussion this year.
With or without slots, many lawmakers said they believe there will be legislation to reinstate the $45 million.
“I think there’s a fair chance the Legislature will put this back on (the agenda),” Pinsky said.
While Grasmick said she was hoping for a “continued source of revenue,” county school systems will have to decide how to compensate for the loss of their share of the $45 million.
Montgomery County Public Schools were counting on their portion of the funds, said Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill.
“We’re very disappointed. We feel frustrated and betrayed,” she said.
Although the school system’s operating budget has not been finalized yet, O’Neill said the lack of funds may prevent the county from expanding all-day kindergarten.
Capital News Service reporter Rolando Garcia contributed to this report.