State to limit $6 million textbook aid; Highest-priced private schools would be excluded; Budget vote looming; Legislators also agree to withhold less money from Hippodrome plan


Legislators agreed yesterday to exclude Maryland's highest-priced private schools from the historic $6 million textbook subsidy planned for next fall -- and to send more money per student to the poorest private schools.

House and Senate budget negotiators also significantly scaled back a plan to withhold state money for renovating the Hippodrome Theater, a linchpin for the $350 million redevelopment of Baltimore's west side.

The decisions came on a busy Saturday in Annapolis as Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed a $181 million supplemental budget that fills out a nearly $20 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Legislators are hoping to wrap up negotiations on the budget in time for a final vote tomorrow night, a week before the end of the 90-day session. General Assembly approval of the negotiators' decisions is considered a formality.

The most hotly contested item in the budget has been the $6 million subsidy for textbooks, which would represent the first time Maryland has directly contributed to general education at private and parochial schools.

The House and Senate had approved the subsidy, but negotiators from the two chambers agreed yesterday to direct the money to schools with lower tuition rates.

Under the agreement, private schools that charge tuition greater than the average amount spent per student in public schools -- expected to be roughly $7,000 to $7,500 next school year -- could not qualify for the textbook aid.

That would exclude thousands of students who attend the highest-priced institutions, including the Gilman School, Roland Park Country School and St. Paul's School.

'We're very pleased'

Those schools didn't lobby for the textbook funding. The Maryland Catholic Conference, which pushed hard for the money, said it was happy with the agreement.

"We're very pleased with the prospect that kids whose families have the greatest needs would be the ones first served," said Richard Dowling, executive director of the conference.

Most of the state's 130,000-plus private and parochial school students will be eligible for up to $60 each for textbooks. In addition, the negotiators decided that schools would receive $90 per student if 20 percent or more qualify for federally subsidized lunches.

"That part of the legislation delights us," said Dowling, who estimated that about 5,000 to 6,000 of the state's 60,000 Catholic school students would be eligible for the $90 subsidy. "It's gratifying that legislators wanted to put an emphasis on [these] schools."

Theater plan watered down

Another issue of contention for negotiators was the Hippodrome funding.

Legislators agreed yesterday to water down a Senate proposal that would have held back $5 million of the $21 million budgeted for the project until the city reached an agreement to preserve more historic buildings in the area. Now the state will withhold $1 million -- a concession to the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, a major developer that has been at odds with preservationists.

"It's good that it's a lower amount," said David Stein, the foundation's director of planning. "It would be even better if it was no money attached to it, but it's better."

The Hippodrome received another boost yesterday as Glendening included an additional $1.5 million for the project in his supplemental budget proposal.

The proposal includes $12 million to help low-performing middle school pupils prepare for a new series of high school examinations. State educators had sought $49 million and are considering whether to back off plans to require students to pass the exams before graduation.

Glendening's new spending plan also includes tens of millions of dollars for Baltimore, with more than $10 million for city schools and $20 million for construction and revitalization projects. Among them:

$2 million to demolish old buildings in the city. Some of that money may be used for lead-contaminated buildings.

$1 million to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for renovations of Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

$1.5 million to help University of Maryland build a new law school.

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