State delegates took unprecedented action against Baltimore City last night by voting to withhold almost $5 million from the city until it takes steps to improve its public schools.
In so doing, most suburban and rural lawmakers made it clear that they were tired of pouring millions of tax dollars from their counties into troubled city schools without seeing results. The vote was 85 to 43.
"Every year we're asked to put an enormous amount of money into the Baltimore City school system. I have constituents who are saying, 'When are we going to stop pumping money into a system that won't try to improve itself?' " said Del. John G. Gary, a Republican from Anne Arundel County.
The state has sent more than $2 billion to Baltimore schools over the past six or seven years, said Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who broke ranks with his city colleagues on this issue.
Despite generous state aid, city schools have not substantially improved, Mr. Rawlings said, because of a "culture of complacency" that pervades the system.
To convey a "sense of urgency" to the reforms, his committee proposed that the state withhold $4.8 million of Baltimore's $290 million in school aid for next year until city officials develop a plan for implementing reforms detailed in a recent study.
That 1992 management study suggested that school principals be given more authority, that good schools be rewarded, and that ways be found to more easily get rid of ineffective principals or teachers.
The city has the worst attendance rate for teachers in the state, said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's County Democrat and ranking Appropriations Committee member.
"It's time to demand better standards," he said, "because the students need it.
Several city delegates accused the legislature of trying to micromanage a local school system that is already doing its best to reform itself.
"They're saying, 'You're bad boys and girls in the city. You're not very nice because you have a bad school system. So we're going to punish you,' " said Del. Paul Weisengoff, a Baltimore Democrat, whose angry words brought a momentary hush to the 141-member House.
He urged his colleagues to reject the measure in order to give Baltimore School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey time to continue his reforms.
Last night's vote came as the House considered amendments to the governor's proposed $12.7 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and ends June 30, 1994.
The House will take a final vote on the budget in the next few days and then send its plan to the Senate for consideration.
City delegates did pick up some votes among lawmakers in Baltimore and Prince George's counties, who were concerned that the action would set a precedent for state interference with local school systems.
"This is Big Brother in my local business," said Del. Leslie Hutchinson, a Baltimore County Democrat. "We're using a club when a nudge would do."
In other school matters, the Appropriations Committee yesterday withdrew an already-gutted voucher proposal that would have provided $581,000 for 200 Baltimore children to attend schools outside their districts.
The committee had tried to save the proposal by limiting it to public schools. As originally proposed by the governor, students could have used the money for private and parochial school tuition.
However, many delegates still opposed the extra spending, and House leaders agreed to scrap it.