Bill would force counties to pay for schools

To force counties to pay their share of the cost of operating K-12 schools, top legislators in Annapolis want the state to seize local tax dollars and deliver them directly to school systems.

The plan is outlined in legislation introduced Tuesday by delegates backed by House SpeakerMichael E. Busch. Some senators are developing a similar plan with the blessing of Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller.

If the approach is adopted, it could set up a clash between county governments and the state over their respective powers.

The plan — which would also allow county officials to ignore voter-adopted tax caps if the money were needed for schools — won praise from the head of the state school board but condemnation from some county officials, including Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold.

"The bill is a menu of distasteful dietary choices causing acute indigestion," said Leopold, a Republican.

"It's the state mandating county expenditures," said Leopold. "The counties should be given the autonomy to make their own funding decisions without the heavy-handed, mandated spending formulas from the state."

Anne Arundel County is among seven municipalities that the state says have failed to keep up with required contributions to schools under rules known as "maintenance of effort."

State officials argue that some counties used an increase in state education aide under the Thornton legislation adopted a decade ago to spend fewer local dollars in the classrooms. The maintenance-of-effort provision prohibits counties from spending less on education from one year to another.

"This is going to help turn the corner and see that the counties fulfill their obligation to education," said Del. Anne Kaiser, a Montgomery County Democrat who helped draft the legislation.

The clash over maintenance of effort rules would be the second important confrontation this year between state and local governments over education-related responsibilities. The two levels of government are also at odds over who should bear the responsibility for teacher pension payments. The O'Malley administration wants to shift part of the costs to the local level, and county officials are fighting back.

The proposed maintenance-of-effort bills in the House and Senate, which are close in concept but not identical, would penalize county governments that fail to maintain funding levels without securing a waiver from Maryland State Board of Education.

Counties that fail to pay their share of education costs could see the state take part of their piggyback tax revenues, a surcharge on the state income tax that goes to the counties, and deliver the money directly to a local school board.

Currently, the penalties available to the state involve reducing a county's education aid — in effect punishing a school system for being underfunded by underfunding it again the next year.

"In some ways the existing maintenance of effort is a little bit of a toothless tiger," said Del. John Bohanan, aSt. Mary's CountyDemocrat who is the lead House sponsor.

James H. DeGraffenreidt, Jr., president of the state school board, said the provision allowing diversion of piggyback taxes to education a great idea. Taking money from school systems because their counties aren't contributing enough is counterproductive, he said.

"I think it is one of the fundamental flaws [in the current law]," he said. "The penalty falls on the victim."

DeGraffenreidt said that while he hasn't seen the bills, they seem to represent a fair approach. He said they would protect school systems and explicitly recognize that there are several counties that exceeded the required funding level before slipping in recent years. He said the proposal would "establish a framework for rational decision-making."

The House legislation introduced Tuesday would also give counties the ability to go beyond the current piggyback tax limit of 3.2 percent, but only for the purpose of funding education. It would also override the property tax caps that have been adopted at referendum in some counties to allow the local governments to raise revenues for education.

Senate President Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, said he agrees with the approach in general and the property tax provision in particular. "You can have a property tax cap, but you can't use it as an excuse not to fund education," he said.

Voters in certain counties — Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Montgomery, Talbot and Wicomico — have adopted hard caps or other limitations on how much their local governments can raise their property taxes. Some state legislators have chafed at those measures, believing they allow county governments to plead poverty while lawmakers in Annapolis are forced to make the hard choices to fully fund schools.

Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said county officials will vigorously oppose the legislation. "For the state to step in and say we know better than the county does will always put communities on alert," he said.

Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat who has been working on the maintenance-of-effort issue, said lawmakers have received an opinion from the attorney general that the General Assembly has the power to override local referendum decisions because of its duty under the Maryland Constitution to provide for education.

In December the state education department notified seven counties — none except Anne Arundel in the Baltimore area — that they were falling short of their maintenance-of-effort requirements for the current budget year.

A spokeswoman said Gov.Martin O'Malleyis letting the legislature take the lead on the issue and has taken no position on the pending bills.

Leopold said the legislators' plan amounts to state meddling in county finances. Any attempt to lift the county's tax cap, which he said is supported by a large majority of county residents, would be met with fierce opposition.

"This proposal threatens to crowd out all these other vitally important programs — public safety, public health, environmental protection — that citizens have the right to expect," he said.

Two Eastern Shore counties have been a particular focus of lawmakers' concerns. In Wicomico, the county government has slashed education funding by about 27 percent in the past two years.

Meanwhile, the county commissioners in Talbot, a relatively wealthy county that cut its education spending this year by nearly $2 million, have been particularly defiant. They contended in letter in December that there is "no legal requirement for a county to fund its board of education" at the same per-pupil level of the year before.

Corey W. Pack, president of the Talbot Board of County Commissioners, said he would oppose both the sanctions and the tax cap waiver. "I think it is another stripping-away of the county's power to govern," said Pack, a Republican. He contended that Talbot had continually funded above the required levels until the recent cut.

Educators' groups were more pleased with the proposal.

"It looks very good. It looks like the bill addresses issues superintendents had," said Carl Roberts, executive director of the Public School Superintendent's Association.

Baltimore Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.