In a series of decisions that began to frame the scope of the American Civil Liberties Union school-funding lawsuit against Maryland, Baltimore's chief judge ruled yesterday that Montgomery County cannot join the case -- and that Baltimore City does not have to.
Chief Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan denied the state's request to dismiss the lawsuit, which it challenged because Baltimore was not named as a party in the suit.
The suit alleges that the state fails to aid Baltimore sufficiently for the city to provide adequate education to its students. Montgomery had attempted to intervene in the suit, fearing its own education funding would be affected by the outcome.
In arguing that Baltimore should be involved or the case should be dismissed, Assistant Attorney General Evelyn Cannon pointed out that Baltimore shares equally with the state the responsibility for educating the city's children.
"I've concluded," Judge Kaplan said, "that they are not necessary participants, and the suit need not be dismissed due to their absence."
ACLU lawyers filed the class-action suit in December, naming as defendants the state Board of Education and several state officials. Yesterday, Judge Kaplan also dismissed Gov. Parris N. Glendening from the suit, leaving as defendants the state Board of Education and Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools.
The suit asks the court to declare Maryland's method of financing schools unconstitutional because it deprives Baltimore students of the resources for an "adequate" education. The complaint cites as evidence of inadequacy Baltimore's low school test scores, poor attendance, the highest high school dropout rate in Maryland, and low scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test taken for college entrance.
When it was filed, Baltimore was expected to file a similar challenge. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said in January he would wait, because he and Governor Glendening were discussing alternatives. Baltimore did not participate in yesterday's hearings.
ACLU lawyers distinguish their suit from a 1979 challenge to the state school aid formula that focused on the unequal resources of rich and poor school districts. That lawsuit, filed by Baltimore and three rural districts, was won in Circuit Court but lost on appeal to the state Court of Appeals in 1983.
Montgomery did join the 1979 suit on the side of the state, providing more than $1 million dollars worth of legal help to the side that ultimately won.
Yesterday, Judge Kaplan invited Montgomery County to file a friend-of-the-court brief outlining its position, and denied the county's motion to become a participant in the case. County officials now must decide whether to challenge the judge's ruling in the Court of Special Appeals.
"This is basically a straightforward issue: Are the children in Baltimore City getting an appropriate education?" said Judge Kaplan. "Whether the children in Montgomery County are getting an appropriate education is not involved in this lawsuit."
Montgomery sought to participate in the lawsuit in case the ultimate judgment requires Maryland to spend more on Baltimore schools, presumably leaving less in state coffers for other districts. In the last school year, Montgomery County received $1,372 per pupil in state aid; Baltimore received $3,278 per pupil.
The county should participate because of the case's potential for setting education standards that could have implications for all 24 Maryland school districts, argued Roger W. Titus, Montgomery's attorney.
Lawyers representing Maryland and the ACLU opposed Montgomery's bid to join the suit.
Both argued that Montgomery's participation would slow the case, which is scheduled to go to trial April 1, 1996, for an estimated four to six weeks.
"Our point is that having more parties inevitably would lengthen the case. It would make it more difficult," said Susan Goering, the ACLU's legal director.
Filed in the names of 19 children, the lawsuit may result in proposed changes for Baltimore schools, but those proposals may not work elsewhere, she said.