Amount, deadline for state funds to schools unclear

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Despite a Baltimore judge's recent ruling that the state is far from meeting its obligation to give city schoolchildren an adequate education, it is unclear how much more money the city might receive - or when.

Lawyers for the city and parents of children who sued the state over school funding in the mid-1990s say they are awaiting what one called "some revised thinking on the part of the state" about how much aid to give the city.

The state has begun what a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening pointedly called "conversations, not negotiations" with legislators and others about education funding in the governor's next budget, to be submitted in January.

What is clear - from the comments and the fact that the funding issue wound up back in court last month - is that a crack, if not a serious fracture, has emerged in the city-state schools partnership created as part of an agreement four years ago to bring a halt to the litigation.

"We all wanted to avoid court. It's disappointing," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Northwest Baltimore Democrat and one of the partnership's key architects.

"That's the most troubling aspect of what's happening," said state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, also a Northwest Baltimore Democrat, who worked with Hoffman to try to stave off the most recent court action.

In his ruling June 30, Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan found that the state has failed to make the legally required "best efforts to provide even a reasonable down payment on the additional approximately $2,000 to $2,600 per student" needed to give city schoolchildren an adequate education.

Kaplan did not specify how much more money the state needed to give the city to meet its obligations under the Maryland Constitution and the 1996 agreement, nor did he set a deadline for when the funds need to be paid.

He said only that "the court trusts that the state will act to bring itself into compliance ... without the need for plaintiffs to take further action."

Closely watched

As both sides digest the impact of Kaplan's ruling, Maryland's Commission on Education, Finance, Equity and Excellence is holding a series of hearings around the state on ways to improve the financing of public education.

With the spotlight again on the courtroom and the classroom, the case is being closely watched by political and education leaders.

"If it's designed as a way to negotiate an improved funding package that is affordable and has statewide equities, then I would term it a positive thing," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "If it is designed to put a judicial gun at the head of the legislature, then I think it's destructive."

Kaplan's ruling was made on a petition by lawyers for the city and the American Civil Liberties Union seeking additional money from the state.

Entering partnership

The city had wanted an additional $49.7 million for the fiscal year that began July 1 for a plan that included expanded preschool programs and higher teacher salaries - $16 million more than the state was willing to pay.

That money was in addition to $254 million in new state aid over five years that was part of the consent decree that settled lawsuits over school funding brought by the ACLU in 1994 and the city in 1995 and a separate federal suit concerning special education.

In exchange for the additional money, the city agreed to give up exclusive control over the schools, entering into a partnership with the state to create a jointly appointed independent board to manage the city's schools.

Because the parties recognized that the money was far short of what would be needed, the consent decree included a provision for the newly created Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore City to seek additional funding from the state by offering a detailed plan on why the money was needed and how it would be spent.

The state was required to use its "best efforts" to satisfy such requests, subject to the availability of money.

If the two sides can't reach an agreement, the consent decree allows the board to petition the Circuit Court, and either side can appeal to the state's appellate court.

Undecided on appeal

Michael Morrill, the spokesman for Glendening, said state lawyers had not decided whether to appeal Kaplan's order.

Reiterating that state operating and construction spending on city schools had increased 66 percent over the past several years, to $6,488 per student, Morrill expressed disappointment that Kaplan did not recognize "what has been done and what is feasible" in terms of future funding.

He also expressed disappointment over references, in Kaplan's ruling and elsewhere, to Maryland's nearly $1 billion surplus, with the clear implication that the state could well afford to give the city more aid.

"My biggest frustration has been that people read about this surplus and think the money can go into an operating budget when it is not sustainable," Morrill said.

'Continue conversations'

State leaders have begun talking about education funding in the forthcoming budget, he said.

"We will continue to have conversations with the school board and with the city about the whole gamut of issues we're concerned about," he said. "But we're past the negotiations stage."

That statement is at odds, semantically if not substantively, with what lawyers for the city and the ACLU say is needed.

"How and where this is going, to a great degree, is the subject for some negotiations and some revised thinking on the part of the state," said Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland.

"We just wait. The next move is up to the state," said Wilbur D. Preston Jr., a lawyer for the school board.

Asked how long the board would wait, he said: "I don't know. That's up to the board and not me. I would think they'd wait awhile."

In other states where school funding lawsuits have been filed, including Kentucky, Ohio and New Jersey, the issue has often taken several court rulings to resolve, lawyers for both sides said.

"There is this tension between the authority of the court and the authority of the legislature and the executive that everyone is cautious of," said Maureen Dove, a lawyer for the state.

"Courts do what Judge Kaplan has done," said Elizabeth B. McCallum, a Washington attorney working with the ACLU. "The ball's now in the court of the executive and the legislature."

Bitter echoes

Returning to court sparked loud echoes of the bitter debate over city schools that preceded the 1996 consent decree, when the city accused the state of callousness for underfunding its disadvantaged students, the state castigated the city for poor management and the legislature periodically withheld funds from the schools.

Both sides acknowledge the partnership has succeeded in beginning to make improvements in city schools.

But the city is upset that Glendening has funded items such as $6 million for private school textbooks while not fully funding the city's $49.7 million request.

The governor has complained about the city's failure to provide additional money to the schools, and the school board's failure to "act decisively to reduce a notoriously inflated bureaucratic infrastructure."

'A different taste'

Morrill, the governor's spokesman, said the failure of the two sides to resolve the dispute out of court has caused Glendening to have "a level of concern about the state of the partnership. ... It leaves a different taste."

But Goering, the Maryland ACLU executive director, is more philosophical.

"It was disappointing for everybody we wound up back in court," she said. "On the other hand, these are tough issues.

"This case and its outcome poses some existential questions for the state of Maryland: How are we going to educate our children? What's in the best interests ultimately for all of the state?

"I see this court decision as a catalyst to force us to focus on those questions."

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