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Stakes are high in suit over state school funds Schmoke move calls attention to failings of city education; Quiet filing hints mayor is going through motions


No anguished cry for equal justice accompanied Baltimore's recent decision to sue the state of Maryland for "adequate" school aid -- and no wonder.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke may well have wished to file his suit in the dead of night, and virtually did.

He made no public announcement, issued no press release.

Though he has a political and even a fiduciary responsibility to assert the city's financial interests, the stakes and the risks of the suit are high for him personally and for the city schools as well.

The mayor was suing a state legislature that, increasingly, believes "adequate" funding is not possible in Baltimore schools until changes occur in school management.

The suit draws further attention to that dreary assessment.

He was suing in spite of suggestions that the legislature would do nothing for the city until the case and an appeal are settled.

He was suing his political ally, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, mere days after an election campaign in which Mr. Schmoke claimed vast influence with the governor.

And he was suing the taxpayer-voters of Maryland counties whose support he may wish to court in some later election for U.S. senator or governor.

Some of them may recall that in 1992 the city cut its property tax rate and gave its employees a raise.

"It's sure not going to make for good feelings," said Del. Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican.

"People around the state won't like to be sued. And I don't think the city has been that badly treated. I would question the wisdom of it."

Lawsuits are always acts of aggression, disliked in almost any context, but politicians can be even more annoyed than others.

Lawsuits are an admission of political failure, and courts threaten legislative authority.

Mr. Schmoke's friend, the governor, has sounded not happy, of course, but understanding. That reaction, too, raises suspicion.

"In Montgomery County," said Blair Lee IV, a developer and newspaper columnist, "we smell a rollover." How energetically, he wondered, will the state defend itself in court? Isn't it easier for Mr. Schmoke to get more money via the courts, relieving Mr. Glendening of the political damage inherent in such a payout?

The city could suffer more embarrassment if the state defends itself vigorously, arguing that Baltimore schools are incapable of effectively spending the money they get now.

But the suit does more than ask for money.

It asks for relief from various reforms and standards it had previously agreed to pursue. Reform is not possible on the cheap, it says, an argument that may have some validity -- though it infuriates legislators who believe that the city's school administration, led by Dr. Walter G. Amprey, has been less than fully committed to improving itself.

Until change occurs, the legislature is holding back about $6 million -- money the city is now asking the court to release.

"There is little evidence," says Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, "that just giving money to solve the problems of the schools will work. We have spent hundreds of millions in recent funding formula changes, but the same systemic problems exist today. There is resistance to reform."

Results for spending

Referring to Mr. Schmoke's recent victory in the Democratic mayoral primary, he said: "He's been endorsed by the citizens of Baltimore, but not by the citizens of the state. That's the major difference.

"The state spends more than $400 million in support of public education in Baltimore, more than 50 percent of the total cost, so I think it is appropriate that the citizens of the state have an expectation that the money they are sending is spent effectively and improves the lives of the children.

"We don't have that assurance or we wouldn't withhold the money."

Given all the risks, in fact, some wonder if the mayor is not simply honoring a commitment -- that he is not completely persuaded of its merit as a tactic. No wonder, then, that the actual filing was done without notice.

Gap narrowing

In some ways, the action is out of date. The gap between spending in the state's richest and poorest subdivisions has been narrowing -- along with the gap between the social conditions extant in places as affluent as Montgomery County, increasingly an urbanized suburb.

Maryland spent an average of $5,978 per student on public education in 1992-1993. Per-pupil spending ranged from $7,544 in Montgomery to $4,898 in Caroline County. In Baltimore, per-pupil spending averaged $5,391 that school year, while Baltimore County spent $6,203.

Every little bit helps, of course, and the city may be able to argue that other poor areas of Maryland will benefit from a more equalizing distribution system. For its own part, the city says in the suit that its tax capacity is one of the lowest in the state, with a bleak 10-year outlook.

$127 million short

The suit asks no specific dollar amount of relief. But in testimony before a special school funding commission last fall, Dr. Amprey said the city needed at least $127 million more to ensure "adequacy." That would have increased per-pupil spending in the city, with an estimated annual operating budget of $630 million a year, by $1,213 per pupil, roughly the gap between spending in the city and in Baltimore and Howard counties.

Mr. Schmoke's motives are surely open now to question from others in the General Assembly.

"[The suit] raises questions about how seriously they want to change the schools, whether the main purpose is to help reform and improve the schools or simply to get more money from the state taxpayers," said Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery Democrat.

"I'm not surprised there's a suit for the school funding. I am surprised they're using it to stop the school reform movement."

State 'largess'

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's Democrat, said: "I think somewhere, somehow, in some place and some fashion, this mayor has to recognize the extraordinary efforts by the state of Maryland, particularly under the administration of William Donald Schaefer, to assist the city of Baltimore. I don't know of any other jurisdiction in the nation that has received such largess from the state."

Others suggest that Mr. Schmoke could be strangling whatever inclination remains to help the city.

Another legislator from a suburban Washington county laughed at that idea.

"Will this slow down the effort to send more money to Baltimore? The answer is -- what effort? There's pressure for a personal income tax cut, but not much for giving more aid to Baltimore."

What's the message?

Other questions for Mr. Schmoke, though, go to the fate of the children.

Is he saying that things are so bad nothing, not even a four-year lawsuit, could hurt? Is he saying they are so good nothing could hurt?

What message does his suit send to Dr. Amprey and others in the system? A spokesman for the mayor, Alonzo Williams, said the city would not comment on pending litigation.

"What they are saying is, 'You give us money and then you get out of the way,' " Mr. Rawlings said. "That's just not going to happen, and if a court ordered that, I would be one of the first to call for legislators to defy the court."

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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