ANNAPOLIS – The General Assembly’s decision to reduce expected aid to local school districts by $152 million in the next fiscal year has teachers and county officials worried that they are in for “a difficult time over the next two years.”
The freeze on local aid was one of several measures approved in the just-ended special session that aimed to close a projected $1.7 billion deficit next year.
Gov. Martin O’Malley has already signed the bill that would limit increases in education spending to 1 percent a year for the next two fiscal years and no more than 5 percent every year thereafter.
Without the change, the state would have been obligated to boost education spending by 5.2 percent next year under the Thornton law, which mandates annual inflation-indexed increases in school aid.
“I’m really concerned about the impact this funding reduction is going to have on senior staff, who are going to see little economic incentive to stay on the job,” said Hal Keller, executive director of fiscal services for Frederick County Public Schools.
The reductions mean Frederick County alone will lose nearly $7.9 million in state aid next year.
Those first two years will be hard times for school districts, said Dan Kauffman, spokesman for the Maryland State Teachers Association.
“We think 5 percent is keeping pace. But clearly, we’re in for a difficult time over the next two years,” Kauffman said.
He said his association will lobby local governments to provide school systems additional help to make up for lost state funding.
“It’s up to each local jurisdiction. We’re going to be pushing hard for them to provide more help to schools rather than less,” he said.
But local governments will find it difficult to help out, said Michael Sanderson, legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties. MACO estimates that every county but Kent will see a drop in state aid under the measure passed this week.
“It’s going to be a challenge when they are putting together their county budgets,” Sanderson said.
The governor will propose a state budget in January, and counties produce their own budgets between January and June.
Robert Thomas, a spokesman for Harford County Executive David Craig, said that until those budgets are drafted, it is too early to determine what his county can provide.
“We will be examining the amount of state funding, as it relates to education,” Thomas said.
Keller said that in Frederick County, the state cuts may mean two years of little to no pay raises. Teachers whose job performance is satisfactory get pay raises every July. But if the money is not there, they will have to go without.
“Frederick County Public Schools is looking at a real concern about being able to pay the step increment, which is looked at by most employees as being expected . . . we’re not sure if we’ll be able to put that in the budget,” Keller said.
The result might be a lot of teachers leaving the work force.
“Minimal to no increases for two years in a row is a considerable factor in whether they retire or not,” he said.
It could also make it harder for Maryland to attract new teachers from out of state. Keller said Maryland typically needs 7,000 to 8,000 new teachers a year, but only 2,500 to 3,000 Maryland college graduates take up teaching in any given year.
“Maryland needs to attract teachers from outside, and that’s on a normal year,” he said.
Gary Brennan, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association, added that new demands like state tests make running a school system more expensive than it was in years past.
“The funding is scaled back, but the needs and expectations aren’t scaled back,” said Brennan, adding that increases greater than 1 percent are now vital.
Brennan was hopeful that officials would have a better idea of the budget picture come spring, after counties have formulated tentative spending plans.
“Right now, there are just a lot of question marks in terms of funding,” he said.
He added that it isn’t just county officials who will need to take action. School officials are also going to have to think carefully about how they spend their money.
“Sometimes, you have to go back and assess what you are doing,” he said. “You might like to have a new central office building, for example. But if the budget is bare, you’ll need to hold off.”
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