After state officials ruled Anne Arundel County shortchanged the school system by $5 million, county officials suggested paying the tab by raiding construction projects.
A pending bill would wipe out money to replace roofs and school buses, eliminate funds to replenish the school system's fleet of cars or fix driveways and parking lots, as well as dip into pots that pay for school furniture and maintenance projects. The funds would then be transferred to the schools operating budget, which is the focus of the debate. County officials say the school system has plenty of savings to pay for the projects itself.
But the squabble over $5 million, which represents less than 1 percent of the school's operating budget, also has Anne Arundel lawmakers to accusing the schools of reneging on a deal and the superintendent lobbing back barbs.
"The way the county and the council are going about this lacks collaboration," Superintendent Kevin Maxwell said. "It's about power and control, and it's not about what's best for the children of our county."
Jerry Walker, one of two county councilmen who negotiated a budget plan with the schools in May, said he was surprised that after Maxwell's post-budget news release heralded "communication and collaboration," the school system told the state it needed more money.
"I find it very frustrating because I felt like we were working together, and now it seems like we were not," said Walker, a Republican from Gambrills.
The county's plan — co-sponsored by three councilmen — to take money from construction projects comes as it faces a late October deadline to pay the tab.
The Maryland State Board of Education reviewed the dispute and on Aug. 28 issued a letter declaring county funding fell $5 million short of minimum state funding requirements. Maryland's maintenance-of-effort law prohibits local governments from decreasing per-pupil funding from year to year.
The state's letter gave Arundel 60 days to pay the money or the comptroller would withhold $5 million from income tax due the county.
The letter quotes the schools system's argument that the plan approved in May allows the county "to engage in double-counting" of operating budget funds. The school system also told the state that leaving the plan as it was approved this spring would be "enabling the county to give with one hand and take with the other."
In a recent interview, Maxwell said he thought getting through the budget process was a separate compromise from agreeing that the county met minimum funding levels.
"I'm not going to say that I'm satisfied with the funding that I had or the way the funding was allocated," Maxwell said.
Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat from Crownsville, said the episode has created "the most adversarial" atmosphere between the council and schools in the six years he's been in elected office.
"There's been this unmitigated fight between the county executive and the superintendent over budget priorities," Benoit said, adding that the council has traditionally acted as a mediator.
"Every year, the council has been called upon and, to its credit, has better prioritized funding dollars. It certainly doesn't help the relationship between the County Council and the Board of Education that we're having this debate."
The issue has prompted one councilman to explore legalizing school vouchers in order to lower the tab the county owes the schools in future years. Councilman John Grasso, a Republican from Glen Burnie, proposes giving parents $5,000 for each child taken out of public schools, which cost county taxpayers roughly $7,500 per student each year.
"We invite people to leave our system," Grasso said of his plan, which would require a new state law. "We have a maintenance-of-effort [bill], and it keeps going up and up. So how do get rid of it? … There is no more money."
Part of the current argument, county and school officials said, has to do with how the schools plan to spend $28 million left over from prior years. County officials said the schools should use that savings instead of asking for more. School officials said the pending bill doesn't solve that problem.
"The money's there, but I can't touch it," schools Chief Operating Officer Alex Szachnowicz said.
Said county Chief Administrative Officer John Hammond: "This is a controversy that doesn't have to exist. And it's only because, apparently, the board is trying to get additional money. It doesn't have to be that way."
He said the county's proposal to settle the dispute is akin to "moving money from one pocket to the other."
"That was the budget deal: How much money is the board going to get at the end of the day," Hammond said. "That hasn't changed."
The bill to move money from construction projects to the school system's operating budget is up for a public hearing Oct. 1. Councilman Dick Ladd, who co-sponsored the measure, said it's the least painful plan for paying the tab.
Anne Arundel, whose local income tax rate is among the lowest in Maryland, has faced multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls for at least three years as the collapse of the housing market, cuts in state aid and the recession took a toll on its balance sheets.
"We just struggled to get people back off of furloughs," said Ladd, a Broadneck Republican. "We have a problem. We can't manufacture $5 million. We don't have the option of doing nothing."