Lawmakers in Annapolis are considering loosening the 11-year-old state mandate that counties maintain a minimum level of education spending, a decision that could cost schools as much as $400 million over the next five years.
Under the so-called "maintenance-of-effort" requirement, counties must spend as much per pupil as they did the previous year or lose state aid. County governments long have complained that the law is an unfair burden during difficult financial times.
But a compromise reached among state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, the state school board, county officials, and organizations representing local school boards and superintendents has rekindled the debate.
Their proposed legislation would lower the rate at which counties are required to fund new students -- from 100 percent of the previous year's per-pupil expenditure to 60 percent.
A similar bill pending in the House of Delegates would alter the formula differently, but the results would be nearly the same: Counties would be able to spend about $33 million less on schools next year.
During a hearing before two Senate committees Friday, county officials said relaxing the maintenance-of-effort requirement won't necessarily mean less money for schools, but would merely give counties that option. With tax revenues stagnant, but school enrollment still growing, counties need the flexibility, they said.
"Just because you add a student doesn't mean your expenses are driven up that much," said Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a former school administrator.
"If this isn't changed, it will harm the quality of education. People will be afraid to add to the school budget for fear it will be counted against the formula the following year."
The change would have the greatest impact in high-growth counties such as Baltimore County, where schools could lose as much as $4 million next year -- enough to pay the salaries of 100 teachers. That is unlikely to happen, however; County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said last week that he would fund new students next year at this year's rate, whether the bill passes or not.
But county officials said they fear a growing number of jurisdictions won't be able to make that claim, and they point to Wicomico County as a prime example. Last year, the Eastern Shore county failed to meet the maintenance-of-effort mandate and had to forgo $800,000 in state aid despite a 10-cent property tax increase.
The school system was forced to hold fund-raisers and charge student fees to continue extracurricular activities. The school board had to cut driver education and summer school, and reduce the number of guidance counselors -- among other cuts.
Bill proponents say Wicomico's case is just the beginning.
While financially strapped Baltimore City would not be affected by the legislation, Wicomico and eight other counties -- including Baltimore, Carroll and Prince George's -- also are projecting revenues for next year that are below the maintenance-of-effort requirement, said Michael J. Sanderson, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties.
"It's an everybody-loses situation," Mr. Sanderson said.
Twice in the past four years, 1992 and 1993, the state waived the maintenance-of-effort requirement as counties struggled with the recession.
Aside from reduced financial requirements, counties are using the bill to push for more control over school budgets, which are largely controlled by school boards.
"The school boards are guaranteed an increase in their funding each year, so what it leads to is a lack of accountability," Mr. Sanderson said. "It's a kind of charade. They don't have the obligation to defend their programs because they get the money anyway. If we make the school board defend the last small portion of their budget, it makes the whole budget a lot more meaningful."
Approved during the robust economy of the mid-1980s, maintenance of effort was meant as a way to force counties to use new state aid for schools rather than shifting dollars to pay for other services or to lower taxes.
But the issue has divided the state's education community. Educators agreed to the compromise last month because it removed provisions that would have given counties more control over how schools spend money.
"We cannot be held accountable for what we're expected to do if we don't have control of where the funds go," said Carolyn L. Scott, president of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and a member of the Carroll County school board.
Still, many school boards, including those in Montgomery, Prince George's, Carroll, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, oppose the bill. The Maryland State Teachers Association and the Maryland Council of PTAs also adamantly oppose it.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening has proposed spending $2.2 billion on public schools next year, $111 million more than last year -- the largest increase in state school aid in more than a decade. Opponents complain that increase will be wasted if counties are free to cut school budgets.
"They sacrificed the money for control. They placed a higher priority on control than on actually funding education for children," said Carolyn M. Roeding, vice president of legislative activity for the Maryland PTA.
If approved, the new rule would affect high-growth counties most if their county officials reduce spending on schools. In Harford County, which adds 1,000 students a year and where local contributions are 54 percent of the school budget, schools could lose as much as $3 million.
In Howard, which expects about 1,580 new students next year, and where the county supports 73 percent of the budget, schools could lose up to $2.3 million. Carroll, which expects 900 new students next year on top of this year's 24,000, could spend up to $1.1 million less on schools.