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Howard Democrats ask Hogan to release education money

The Howard County Council's four Democrats have written another open letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, this time asking him to restore funding earmarked for education in light of predictions that the state will see a budget surplus this year and next.

The letter – the second in less than two weeks from council Democrats to the Republican governor – argues spending surplus money on schools should be a priority "given the clear benefits of a top-tier education for the long term health of the State.

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"This worthy goal is both a prudent investment in our collective future and a priority of our citizenry," council members wrote.

State Democrats announced in early November that Maryland is expected to collect $500 million more in revenues than budgeted this fiscal year, and $215 million more in fiscal year 2017. Since then, Democratic leaders – including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the executives of Prince George's, Frederick, Montgomery and Baltimore counties – have called on the governor to release $68 million in funds that the General Assembly set aside specifically for schools.

The money would fulfill the Geographic Cost of Education Index, a state funding formula that provides additional cash to jurisdictions where educating students is more expensive. While it wasn't a requirement, many counties had grown accustomed to the extra money under the administration of former Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat. Citing a need to rein in state spending, Hogan offered to fund half of the formula, but not more.

In response, state legislators voted to require full funding of the formula in future years.

In February, when Hogan and Democratic lawmakers first started jousting over the formula, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman wrote a letter to the governor asking him not to cut spending on schools.

"While I support the notion that we must collectively share in correcting the deficits we face, I am concerned about the current proposed budget's impact on state aid for Howard County, particularly for education funding," Kittleman wrote at the time. "Howard County is known and sought after for its exceptional school system, libraries and community college. It would be disappointing to not be able to maintain some of our crowning achievements."

Unlike other local school districts, the Howard County Public School School System didn't feel any repercussions when the formula wasn't funded. Kittleman found $2.8 million in his fiscal year 2016 budget to bridge the gap.

In their letter to Hogan, dated Nov. 30, council Democrats wrote that "withholding money already approved for Howard County disproportionately hurts minority and special needs students" and pointed out that the school system is already "struggling to keep up with growing enrollment and increasing demand for services for special needs students and also working hard to close the achievement gap."

They also argued that state funding is necessary to improve test scores, keep up with construction costs and improve teacher pay. "Providing competitive compensation is key to retaining great teachers and attracting the most capable new teachers," council members wrote. "Limited progress in these areas has led to difficulty in recruitment, particularly in certain critical content areas."

Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican from Fulton, said the council's action in writing to Hogan "appears to be a pattern of political behavior that is steeped in hypocrisy," and noted that the county school system did receive the full amount of its request. Fox was the only council member not to sign on to the letter. He also didn't sign the council's earlier message to Hogan urging him to reconsider his stanceo n Syrian refugees.

Tuesday, Kittleman spokesman Andy Barth reiterated Kittleman's commitment to education funding, though he declined to comment on the letter specifically, which he said the executive had not seen.

"Now is not the time to abandon common sense," a spokeswoman for Hogan said in an emailed statement, which pointed out that Maryland is facing a $1 billion cumulative deficit in the coming years and is still behind on funding the state's pension system. "Despite these obvious financial constraints, this administration funded education at record levels this past year and it will remain a top priority going forward. Gov. Hogan was the first governor in the history of the state to fund GCEI in his first year in office and he will be the first governor to fully fund it in his second year."

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