A battle over $5 million escalated this week with Anne Arundel County lawmakers threatening repercussions and school leaders saying seven projects for new schools are jeopardized by the fray.
At issue is how the county should pay a $5 million tab owed to the school system under Maryland's maintenance-of-effort law.
"It'll probably be the last five million [dollars] the Board of Education gets in a long while," Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat from Crownsville, told a school system representative during a public hearing Monday.
Councilman John Grasso, a Republican from Glen Burnie, put his threat more plainly: "It's a payback the next time around."
Later in the week, Grasso further refined the council's position, saying, "We're at war."
School spokesman Bob Mosier said the school system is taking the threats seriously. The council wields the most power over construction projects, Mosier said, and he's concerned about funding for Lothian, Crofton, Rolling Knolls, Mills-Parole and Benfield elementary schools and Severna Park High School.
"It puts all those in jeopardy," Mosier said.
The spat, which concerns less than 1 percent of county spending, has sparked rhetoric beyond the traditional tension between school and county officials fighting over scarce resources, observers said.
"It's gotten pretty sad," PTA President Ray Leone said. "They've taken it beyond our children being bargaining chips."
The Maryland State Board of Education gave Anne Arundel until the end of this month to come up with the $5 million or have it withheld from the county's income tax disbursement.
Anne Arundel County is the state's only jurisdiction currently violating the maintenance-of-effort law, according to Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
Council Chairman Derek Fink, a Pasadena Republican, said the schools "reneged" on a deal to ensure the county met the minimum funding levels. Fink called the schools "just absolutely ridiculous" for not coming up with the money out of their savings.
And Councilman Chris Trumbauer, a Democrat from Annapolis, said he was disappointed that schools never let the council know they felt short-changed.
"I was surprised by this, and not in a good way, like a 'happy birthday' way, but in a bad way," Trumbauer said.
Jurisdictions across Maryland have struggled to meet minimum funding levels as the economy soured, said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. The law ensures per-pupil funding never declines.
Sanderson said the rule rarely got attention during prosperous times and the only debate was how much more than the minimum should be paid.
"It was a safety net that no one fell into," Sanderson said.
The law, he said, became an issue when a declining real estate market meant fewer and fewer tax dollars for local governments.
"If your whole budget is shrinking, but you have to maintain funding to the biggest part of the budget, you end up with a squeeze," Sanderson said. "There has been friction on this front in recent years, and I think it's really a function of an economy that makes tough decisions even tougher."
To pay the tab, Anne Arundel County officials devised a plan to take money from the pots for school buses, replacing roofs, buying furniture and other maintenance projects. The plan would take money from the construction budget and move it to the school's operating budget, which is the point of contention.
"The only problem with this proposal?" Chief Administrative Officer John Hammond said to the council. "It requires the acquiescence of the Board of Education."
During Monday night's council meeting, the school system made clear it will not sign on to the deal.
"Has your staff drafted anything that you would like to see, other than just a check?" Councilman Dick Ladd, a Republican from Severna Park, asked Alex Szachnowicz, chief operating officer for Anne Arundel County Public Schools.
"No sir," Szachnowicz said.
Mosier, the schools spokesman, said the deal was illegal and laid blame for the conflict on the county.
"There's no desire on the part of this school system to fan flames, there's no desire to participate in political theater," Mosier said. "There's also no desire to be complicit in the county further breaking the law."