City sues state in attempt to get more school aid

THE BALTIMORE SUN

City lawyers yesterday filed a long-planned lawsuit aimed at forcing the state to come up with tens of millions of dollars more a year in aid for the Baltimore City Public Schools and to halt educational reforms the city says are "illegal."

A 36-page complaint, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court on behalf of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the City Council, the Board of School Commissioners and board President Phillip H. Farfel, charges that the state has violated the Maryland Constitution by failing to provide the resources essential for an "adequate" education for city children.

Although the lawsuit does not specify how much money Baltimore needs, it asks the court to order a boost in the state's share of education funds for the city and to scrap the current system of financing local education statewide.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prohibit Maryland from ordering reforms at any more Baltimore schools. Currently, five city schools are being run under close state supervision.

Moreover, the city wants the $5.8 million withheld by the state legislature in the spring. That action was designed to force the city to improve its management of schools.

Finally, the lawsuit wants to block the General Assembly from ever withholding funds again.

Financing the city's school system already is an expensive obligation for the state. This year, Baltimore will get $334 million -- roughly half the school system's budget. The Glendening administration says Baltimore is expected to get about $100 million more during the next four years.

Yesterday's filing comes at a time when the city schools face a budget shortfall of at least $27 million. The gap already is large enough to cause drastic cuts at school headquarters and is expected to grow.

The lawsuit, threatened for years by Mr. Schmoke, also comes just weeks after Gov. Parris N. Glendening endorsed the mayor Aug. 25 for Mr. Schmoke's successful bid for nomination to a third term.

Mr. Schmoke, who could not be reached to comment, pledged during his re-election campaign not to let the budget crisis affect educational programs.

"The city government is concerned that children in Baltimore City receive the best education they can, and that's going to take more resources than the city currently has. This suit is a way to get more resources," Frank C. Derr, Baltimore's associate solicitor, said yesterday.

"The main thrust of the litigation is to obtain more resources from the state," he said. "We would hope that the court would ask the parties to fashion a remedy: I think ultimately resources come down to funding. It may mean the creation of new programs funded by the state. It may be additional technical assistance from the state."

Mr. Glendening issued a statement late yesterday defending the amount of money the state has contributed to city schools. He said the state wants to work with the city but is prepared to go to court.

"The facts show that state aid to education is projected to increase by $550 million during this four-year administration, including $95 million for Baltimore City. These are operating funds only, separate and distinct from capital funding," the statement said. "Combined with $480 million for school construction over the same period (this) means $1 billion for education.

"We are certainly sympathetic to the city's concerns. We have tried to work with the city and we are willing to try again."

The lawsuit refers to the city's long-standing and unsuccessful efforts to negotiate a solution with the state. City and state officials have been in private negotiations this summer to attempt to settle a related suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Schmoke long has threatened to file such a suit, but he said in January he would delay the action so he and the governor could meet with top legislative leaders. This summer, private talks have not produced a solution.

The mayor also agreed to put off plans to file suit in 1993 after then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed a Commission on School Funding. The commission recommended an overhaul of the method of school funding, but its recommendation went nowhere in the General Assembly.

The complaint claims that state officials have failed to provide the financing to allow Baltimore City schoolchildren to meet contemporary statewide standards and charges that the defendants have "refused" to fully appropriate proposed increases in the state education budget.

The suit cites a city tax capacity that is one of the lowest in the state, with a bleak 10-year outlook, as one reason the city cannot pump more money into schools -- and that "any increase in local income and property taxes may result in current residents of Baltimore City relocating outside of Baltimore City."

The complaint says the city has met its burden by funding education at levels "at least equal" to previous years' budgets, including increases based on changes in enrollment.

Baltimore's tax-based share of the school budget this year is $195 million.

"Not only is the city overburdened, but the population that is being served starts out at a point where they need more resources," Mr. Derr said.

Yesterday, Schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey hailed the filing, calling it a "tactical and strategic move" by city attorneys.

"This has been a long time coming, and I think it's necessary in order to help us improve the education of the children of Baltimore," he said.

The school system could recover the $5.8 million in administrative funds if Dr. Amprey upgraded several management practices by January, state legislators had decided.

"I don't think any credible court in the world will require us to release the money until the reforms are implemented," Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings, House Appropriations Committee chairman, said yesterday.

The city needs to prove that it can implement the required reforms, he said, "to ensure the public and any court that we are not throwing good money after bad."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland sued the state Dec. 6, asking the court to declare Maryland's method of financing schools unconstitutional because it denied city students resources necessary for an "adequate" education.

Filed in the names of the parents of 19 children from 12 schools, the ACLU suit relied heavily on the city's poor showing in the Maryland School Performance Program, a school reform effort.

Baltimore officials said at the time that they were planning a lawsuit of their own, and the city had hired a Montgomery County lawyer at a cost of $500,000 to file suit.

The Schmoke administration said it wanted to narrow the gap in per-pupil spending between the city and wealthy suburban school districts.

QUEST FOR FUNDS

1979 -- Baltimore and three poor rural counties file suit in Baltimore City Circuit Court, challenging the fairness of the state's school finance system.

1981 -- Judge David Ross, who presided over a four-month trial, rules that the system violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution and the constitutional provision calling for a "thorough and efficient" public school system.

1983 -- The Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, overturns Judge Ross in a 5-1 decision.

1987 -- The state adopts a program to provide increased state aid to Maryland's poorer school systems, including Baltimore.

1989 -- A commission headed by Walter Sondheim reports inequities in Maryland's school system fail to provide high quality education to all students. The report led to the development of the Maryland School Performance Program, which measures student achievement.

1992 -- Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke threatens to sue the state over disparities in per-pupil spending. The threat angers then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer and some state legislators.

1994 -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland sues the state in Baltimore Circuit Court, saying spending on city schools was not enough to provide an "adequate" education for students.

1995 -- The city, after repeated delays, files suit against the state.

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