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School funding mandate hurts counties

A recent editorial in The Sun on education funding indicated that Maryland's counties are backing down from their support of public schools and transferring local government funding responsibility to the state. In Anne Arundel County, nothing could be further from the truth.

Here are a few facts:

Since the introduction of the Thornton Commission's "Bridge to Excellence Program," Anne Arundel County has increased its unrestricted funding for K-12 education by more than $194 million and a total of $207 million in excess of minimum funding requirements during that decade. This represented a 64 percent increase in county funding during a period when student enrollment increased only 2.5 percent.

Further, the county's contribution represents a substantial and ongoing local commitment to educating children. That $207 million excess amount accounts for 94 percent of the growth in the county's contributions to its schools.

Stated otherwise, over the period of the state's Thornton funding formula, Anne Arundel County provided its school system $1.94 for every $1 it was required to give. That's nearly twice as much as the law requires.

The problem is not a lack of county funding. The underlying problem is that Maryland's constitutional requirement of a thorough and efficient system of public education imposes fiscal mandates on the counties without ensuring fiscal accountability from local boards of education. For example, state law imposes a minimum level of county funding for schools but then forbids local governments from any reasonable level of fiscal oversight — such as the number and salaries of nonclassroom employees.

In the current fiscal environment, the state mandate forces counties into a no-win decision to fund schools at state-mandated levels and drastically curtail public services such as police, fire, senior centers and libraries.

The cold reality of my five-year tenure as county executive makes this point directly and unequivocally: The Board of Education budget has increased 17 percent, while the budgets of all other county agencies in the aggregate have declined 7 percent.

The state's maintenance of effort mandate has come up hard against the prolonged economic downturn that has decimated county budgets. In an era when the expenditure of every tax dollar should be microscopically scrutinized, the state's mandate ensures that county boards of education get an increased level of funding every year. This eliminates any incentive for a board to develop efficiencies or reduce nonclassroom spending to focus on the children. (The state includes Anne Arundel on its list of school systems failing to meet maintenance of effort requirements, an assertion that we strongly dispute.)

This insular view of budgeting allowed the Anne Arundel County school board to ignore the recommendation of the county executive and budget decision of the County Council and purchase a $4.5 million computer system for human resources and payroll needs. This decision was made despite the fact that, in the interest of efficiency, the county offered its payroll system to the board. After struggling for four years to make the system work, the school board finally gave up and declared the system inoperable.

Another example of the "silo" approach to budgeting empowers school boards to negotiate labor contracts completely independent of county labor relations. In recent years, this has resulted in nonclassroom employees of the Board of Education receiving salary and benefit increases that had been denied to county employees performing similar functions.

The Sun's comment that it's time for some "tough love" is on point but focuses on the wrong target for that "love." State laws governing school boards and their budgets need greater transparency and accountability. It's time for a major revision to Maryland's school funding laws to include increased local oversight over non-classroom expenditures, recognition of the significant county funding increases in past years, and a system of combined state and county funding that recognizes that the sources of all those dollars — the taxpayers — are not a bottomless well that supplies annual school budget increases regardless of the cost to other essential county services.

John R. Leopold is the Anne Arundel county executive. His email is jleopold@aacounty.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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