Schools taking a second look at state aid

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Baltimore school board's decision to go back to court to seek more state aid is prompting school systems across Maryland to re-examine their shares of the money and might spark similar lawsuits from rural areas.

At the least, as the poorest school districts continue struggling amid Maryland's economic prosperity, the city's action has added urgency to a task force charged with finding a new way to divide the state's education dollars to ensure an adequate education for all children.

"I think the commission is the state's best hope at this time of avoiding a lawsuit on the adequacy issue," said R. Allan Gorsuch of the Eastern Shore of Maryland Education Consortium. "I don't know of a single state in the union that has successfully solved the issue of financing equity without a lawsuit, either one that was pending or in the resolution of one."

Only Baltimore will be in the courtroom this month, as it puts forward its 80-page petition aimed at obtaining at least an additional $49 million in state education aid for the next school year. Educators across the state will be watching closely and wondering whether it's time for them to go to court.

"It's probably a little premature, but I don't think the door is closed on going to court," said Michael D. Thomas, Somerset County's superintendent. "There's a strong belief on the Eastern Shore that there are counties that are 'haves' and counties that are 'have-nots.' We're not sure how to correct that."

Somerset County was involved in the first lawsuit alleging inequities in the way Maryland finances schools, one of many skirmishes in a battle over state education dollars that has been going on for decades.

Since 1970, the state has had 11 commissions and task forces charged with studying school financing and accountability. The state's current formula for distributing the bulk of its aid dates to a 1972 task force, but the formula has been modified many times.

During the intervening years, the state has added a hodgepodge of school funding programs and expense formulas, creating a system so complex that few educators or legislators claim to understand how it works. Most also argue that it has furthered inequities among districts.

Differences in how much school systems spend are tied largely to how much money their local governments set aside for education. Maryland's wealthiest system, Montgomery County, spent $8,287 per student for the 1997-1998 school year, compared with $5,985 per student by Caroline County. The state's average per-pupil spending was $6,821.

"We have unmet needs in education funding, not just in Baltimore," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat who represents Allegany County, which has one of the state's poorest school districts. "There are other school systems around the state [that] are being jeopardized by the existing formula."

Landmark settlement

The Baltimore school system's most recent appeal seeks to reopen the 1996 settlement of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, challenging how Maryland financed the city schools. That settlement produced a landmark partnership between the city and the state in which the city relinquished some control over the schools in exchange for an additional $254 million in state aid over five years.

The settlement allowed the city to seek more state money this year. A consultant's report said Baltimore needs about $260 million more per year to meet the needs of its students, but the school board asked Gov. Parris N. Glendening for $49 million. The governor offered about half that during this year's legislative session, leading to two months of negotiations that broke down this month, prompting the city's return to court.

Hearings planned June 26

Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan plans for hearings to begin June 26, though city and state officials say they hope they can reach a compromise before then.

"We'd like there to be more negotiations, but this can't go on forever," said Wilbur D. Preston Jr., a partner with Whiteford, Taylor and Preston, the law firm hired by the city to represent the board in its negotiations with the governor. "The state has not provided the resources to ensure an adequate education for all children, and that's what they have to do."

The governor's office says the state has been a great help to the city schools, increasing its per-pupil contribution by almost 63 percent as a result of the settlement.

The city's move to go back into court -- and the possibility that others might follow -- seems sure to put added pressure on the General Assembly to revise the funding formulas.

A task force appointed by Glendening has been studying the issue and plans to issue recommendations by the end of the year. The appointment last fall of the former head of the Prince George's County school board, Alvin Thornton, as chairman of the task force upset some legislators, but most school systems hope that the panel will find a way to eliminate the inequities.

"We are as concerned as any system [about] this issue of funding," says Dane Coleman, president of the Caroline County school board.

"We have not discussed at this time filing a lawsuit ourselves, but it could always come up later, if necessary," Coleman said.

Choosing litigation

Some observers suggest that litigation could be the only way to break through the political inertia in Annapolis.

"The funding levels are not currently adequate, and I think that lawsuits have been a key part of the solution in other states," said Catherine Brennan, education director of the nonprofit group Advocates for Children and Youth.

The Thornton commission recently hired one of the nation's leading education budget consultants to help it study how Maryland finances public schools, and many educators are watching the panel's work in hopes that they will end up getting more. They fear that their share of the state's education pie might be recommended for a cut.

"I think it is very important that the commission do substantial work to achieve adequacy in funding for all of the school systems," said state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "We are very results-oriented, and we are looking for results for all school systems, not just those with a lot of money.

"There has been a significant recognition that children who come from very difficult circumstances need more resources, so we have to look at a formula that is sensitive to that."

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