‘We can’t make do anymore': Baltimore-area school districts rebel against decade of tight budgets

Students at Bedford Elementary School in Baltimore County work together. The county school board says schools throughout the county need more money, and it is asking for a nearly 15 percent increase in spending next year.
Students at Bedford Elementary School in Baltimore County work together. The county school board says schools throughout the county need more money, and it is asking for a nearly 15 percent increase in spending next year. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Three big suburban school districts — Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties— have rebelled against a decade of tight budgets and are asking for double-digit percentage increases for the coming year.

In Baltimore City, the ACLU has gone to court to try to force the state to send more money to the school system.


And in a small Eastern Shore county, Republican politicians have raised income taxes to build a new school.

Across Maryland, there’s an outcry from public school advocates that funding isn’t keeping pace with the needs of children. Classes are too large, buildings are deteriorated and there are too few guidance counselors, nurses, social workers and other specialized help for students.


“I think education is the slow-burning crisis in Maryland. There is a general sense of frustration about things not going well,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat and former teacher. Ferguson says state and local governments have for too long put off making needed investments in schools.

“The systems are now saying, ‘We can’t make do anymore,’ ” said Cheryl Bost, president of the state teachers union. “ ‘You put all these mandates on us and our kids are coming in with more needs.’ ”

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski called for cuts to school budget within hours after it was passed Tuesday night.

Maryland is not facing the groundswell of anger that erupted into teacher walkouts in a handful of states across the nation. In those states funding levels are far lower than in Maryland, said Bruce Baker, an education professor at Rutgers University whose research focuses on school funding.

But while Maryland might have provided more for its schools, Baker says its current aid formula doesn’t provide enough money to the poorest areas of the state.


Gov. Larry Hogan has repeatedly touted the fact that the state has spent record amounts on education during his tenure, with increases each year. Those boosts have come in part because the number of public school students has grown every year and state law mandates the spending that followed. But education advocates argue that Maryland’s two-decade-old funding formula has failed to keep up with the demands schools face.

This week General Assembly leaders proposed adding $1 billion in state funding for schools over the next two years to help pay for teacher raises, more prekindergarten slots and extra spending for special education, among other items. School system administrators say that would help fill some gaps.

Democratic leaders in Maryland’s General Assembly have introduced legislation to boost funding of the state's public schools by hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for ambitious education proposals. The so-called "Blueprint for Maryland's Future" would provide more than $1 billion.

But because much of the state money would have to be spent on certain programs or budget areas, officials said it would not solve next year’s budget problems, particularly in central Maryland.

For instance, the $18 million Anne Arundel would receive from the bill is a fraction of the $60 million increase the schools are asking for. “It is another step forward,” said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the school system.

“I would say it could be very helpful, but they haven’t identified a funding mechanism,” said George Sarris, executive director of fiscal services in Baltimore County’s school system.

Baltimore City school officials note that the legislation does not change the formula Maryland uses to fund schools, which some studies say shortchanges systems serving many poor children.

“While the additional funds will be helpful in providing certain specified services, they do not address the many other needs experienced by our schools and students,” said Baltimore City schools spokeswoman Anne Fullerton. “We are now analyzing how the proposed additional funds for schools that serve large numbers of low-income students can support work we have already initiated.”

Officials from several school systems said the additional $325 million for next school year could help give their teachers a larger raise than expected, making the Maryland districts more competitive with surrounding states. The bill stipulates that a school system must give teachers a 3 percent overall raise to qualify for state funds that would provide an additional 1½ percent increase. Anne Arundel and Baltimore County officials said their systems would qualify for the extra money. In the case of Baltimore County, the state would provide $9.8 million toward teacher raises.

And some districts said it would be particularly useful in paying for new special education positions. Anne Arundel wants 56 new hires for such positions at a cost of $4 million. Baltimore County, which enrolls more students, would receive $17 million more for special education, which could go in part toward new benefits for special education aides.

Howard County's School Board voted to request nearly $1 billion in funding for next school year. The funds will come from the Howard County Government, the state of Maryland, federal government and other sources.

Some school systems were already demanding far greater spending from their county governments after a decade of often flat funding that followed the recession. During that time, expenses were rising. Ferguson noted that counties had to begin picking up half the cost of teacher pensions and faced much higher employee health care benefit costs.

Teacher salaries also rose over the past decade, but not fast enough to prevent about half of the state’s teachers from leaving the profession within the first four years.

Education advocates are banking on the work of the state's Kirwan Commission, which has called for a series of major initiatives to improve schools. If all the recommendations are adopted, the state and local governments would be contributing an additional $3.8 billion a year for education by 2030.

Assembly leaders have delayed any decisions on the Kirwan plan until next year, leaving local governments in limbo. They are waiting to find out how much more state aid their schools will get — and also how much revenue they will have to raise to pay their local share. State officials have yet to decide what the local share should be.

The teachers union has helped organize a march at the State House on Monday that it hopes will draw as many as 6,000 teachers, parents and other education advocates. County executives from Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and Mayor Catherine Pugh are among those expected to attend.

Strong Schools Maryland, a grassroots advocacy group, says it has helped set up teams of citizens from 19 counties and the city to fight for the extra money the Kirwan Commission seeks.

In Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, school boards have asked for large increases from recently elected Democratic county executives, some of whom campaigned on spending more on education. Instead of following the established practice of not asking for more money than a county can afford, the school boards are in effect forcing county executives to choose between a tax increase or cutting education.

What is fueling some of the biggest growth in Baltimore County school enrollment? The immigrants. Where are many coming from? Nigeria.

While some new county leaders might like to satisfy the requests and raise taxes this year, they might decide it is better to wait until the General Assembly has acted on the Kirwan legislation expected to be introduced in the 2020 session, said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

“Its effect on county finances is completely unknown,” Sanderson said. So county executives are likely to decide not “to take a plunge and raise taxes now” knowing that a second tax increase might be needed the following year to fund the Kirwan recommendations.


Not everyone will be eager to raise taxes to fund their schools. “I don’t think it is as simple as everyone [agreeing] with the conclusion that the schools are underfunded, but there are certain needs there,” Sanderson said.


In Caroline County on the Eastern Shore, the county commissioners decided they needed to build a new school. The commissioners, all Republicans, raised the county income tax to pay for it — and won re-election three weeks later.

In other districts, school leaders say there’s a long list of needs. Superintendents say they need to add more social workers, school counselors and special education teachers. More than 40 percent of the state’s public school students qualify for a free or reduced-price meal, a designation of poverty.

“The 2008 economic crisis was a long time ago,”said John Woolums, head of governmental relations at the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. “Some counties have done more than others,” he said, but mostly they have just maintained spending — while needs have grown and expenses have risen. “Pressure is being brought to bear. We want to hire more teachers and more other professionals,” Woolums said.

A recent Goucher College poll showed that two-thirds of Marylanders believe public schools are underfunded.

The Kirwan recommendations would significantly increase funding, but would also require school systems to spend the money on specific improvements to schools, such as prekindergarten classes, more career technology education for high school students, and support for schools where students live in areas of concentrated poverty.

Ferguson says he realizes the $3.8 billion annual price tag could be off-putting to some. If there is one fact that should persuade the public, Ferguson said, it is in a report released late last year.

Only 28 percent of Maryland’s 2011 high school graduates had obtained an associate or bachelor’s degree eight years later.

Former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan joined Democratic leaders in Annapolis to rally support for legislation that would provide more than $1 billion over the next two years to begin implementing his education commission’s recommendations.

Local school budget requests

Some Maryland school systems are pressing their local governments to provide much more money for the coming year.

» Howard County: The school board is asking for an increase of nearly 16 percent above this year’s budget, which is still less than the superintendent had sought. The $973 million spending plan will go to County Executive Calvin Ball and the County Council, who have already expressed concern that it is more than the county can afford.

» Baltimore County: The board is asking for a 14.8 percent increase — or more than $90 million — in county spending over this year. Board members say the county needs to lower class sizes, which in some schools have ballooned to 30 to 35 students, and provide more money to principals to run their schools.

» Anne Arundel County: The budget request is nearly 10 percent more than the current year, and far more than the school system has gotten in recent years. Board members say the money is needed for teacher raises and to hire more special education staff.

» Harford County: The board is seeking a 6.1 percent increase in money from the county, slightly more than the superintendent asked for. The board’s $472 million request is $15 million more than this year.

» Carroll County: The school board voted to ask for $8.9 million more from the county government for next school year, a 4.7 percent increase over this year’s budget.

» Baltimore City: The school system does not release a proposed operating budget until April or May.