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Lawmakers fault Schmoke for lawsuit on education funding Mayor is pushing state for more school money

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore bashing, a once-fading pastime among Maryland legislators, is back in vogue in the wake of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's announcement that the city would join a lawsuit to force the state to spend more money to fund city schools.

Mr. Schmoke's announcement earlier this month has brought a rain of criticism on the mayor from suburban legislators who feel betrayed by his action.

Moreover, the lawsuit is threatening to undercut a coalition of Baltimore City, Prince George's and Montgomery County lawmakers that blossomed briefly duringthe past General Assembly session.

Legislators from those jurisdictions joined forces to pass a major tax increase, which enabled the city to receive -- by one count, at least -- a $79.6 million increase in direct state aid even as Maryland grappled with a severe budget crisis.

"The timing of this announcement could not have been more unfortunate," Del. Timothy L. Maloney, a Prince George's Democrat, said in an angry six-page letter to Mr. Schmoke this week. "Only five weeks earlier, the General Assembly finished work on an extraordinary program of assistance for Baltimore City."

In fact, the budget deal benefited everyone involved. Prince George's walked away with millions in magnet school funding, while Montgomery County legislators received a large increase in state mass transit aid -- funding that will escalate automatically in future years.

Still, whether it's real or for home consumption, state legislators say, they're angry with the mayor about the proposed lawsuit. And, they say, the anger could affect the level of state aid the city receives during coming legislative sessions.

"We've bent over backward to help the city," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, chairman of the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee. "It's tough enough over here with the Baltimore bashers. In effect, what they've done is make it much harder to justify helping the city. I don't think there would be anybody willing to move forward with aid to the city [in the event of a lawsuit]."

Added Montgomery Democratic Sen. Ida G. Ruben: "I don't think the city did itself a favor with this. The General Assembly has paid a great deal of attention to education, especially for the less-wealthy subdivisions. . . . I think what they'll do is just turn some people off."

The budget and tax deal also gave local jurisdictions the power to raise the local piggyback income tax rate from 50 percent to 60 percent of state income tax. This primarily benefits wealthier counties, and several jurisdictions, including Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, have since raised their piggyback rates by varying degrees.

But Mr. Schmoke angered some legislators by refusing to ask for an increase in the city's 50 percent piggyback rate.

Mr. Schmoke said he decided to forgo the $25 million a 20 percent increase in the piggyback would have yielded the city because Baltimoreans already bear a heavier tax burden than other Marylanders. Baltimore's $5.90 property tax rate is by far the highest in the state.

Despite that argument, even some city legislators are angry with the mayor.

"Many legislators feel they were blindsided by this; that's the problem," said Sen. John A. Pica Jr., chairman of the city's Senate delegation. "It certainly doesn't make our job any easier."

For his part, Mr. Schmoke said there is no good time to file a lawsuit. He also said that, despite big increases in state education spending in recent years, wide disparities persist between the amount of money spent in school systems in Maryland's rich and poor counties.

"When is a good time for a suit?" Mr. Schmoke asked. "There was going to be a lawsuit whether we joined or not. The problem is that the disparities are greater now than [before]. The bottom line is that there are still gross disparities . . . and I don't think that's fair."

Indeed, Baltimore lags as far behind state education spending averages as it did in the mid-1980s.

This has occurred despite steep increases in state education spending and unprecedented increases in city spending on education.

In 1986, the city spent an average of $3,639 per student, about 85 percent of the statewide average of $4,300.

Montgomery County, the state's richest jurisdiction, spent an average of $5,643 per student that year, 31 percent more than the statewide average.

By 1990, things had hardly changed. Education spending totaled $4,947 per pupil in Baltimore, still 85 percent of the statewide average and 19th of 24 school systems in the state.

That compares with $7,590 per pupil in Montgomery County, still 31 percent above the 1990 state average of $5,814.

"We're getting sort of desperate in the city," said Del. Paul Weisengoff, a Baltimore Democrat who has served in the legislature since 1967. "The mayor wants to be the education mayor, and he is having an awful difficult time getting the means together to do it."

But legislators say money is only part of the story. In his letter to the mayor, Mr. Maloney suggested that the city could do a much better job of running its schools.

He pointed out that in two recent legislative sessions, the state has taken control of two former city institutions: the jail and the communitycollege.

Mr. Maloney said good management has radically altered the state of affairs at both places.

"In neither case was money the determinative factor," Mr. Maloney said. "Instead, management, discipline, hard work and the commitment to a culture of quality made the difference."

That is an argument legislators often raise. "One of the things my colleagues continue to say is they don't see the kind of progress in academic performance, attendance, teacher performance in the city, even with all the new money," said Baltimore Democratic Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings. "And they question whether eliminating the [funding] disparity is the total answer."

But Mayor Schmoke scoffs at the suggestion that a lack of money is not the major factor preventing the city from having better schools.

"Sure, we are making all kinds of changes that don't involve money," Mr. Schmoke said. "But what we want is basic stuff: smaller classes, more counselors. . . . If there are legislators who would like to show us how we can better focus our spending to get better achievement, I welcome them to show us."

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