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More money sought for special education


The state task force charged with overhauling Maryland's system of school financing has agreed to ask the governor and General Assembly for huge increases in aid for special education and transportation of disabled students.

The group also is proposing even larger spending increases for special education over the next five years - resulting in a 50 percent increase in special-education aid for 2001-2002 and a 250 percent increase by 2005-2006.

Rising special education costs have "eaten up the other areas of the budget," said John F. Wagoner, an assistant superintendent in Allegany County and a member of the task force, said at its meeting Thursday. "We've had to reallocate from other areas to pay for special education and transportation."

The task force's request for next year would total more than $64 million - including $42.3 million more in state special-education aid and $22 million for transportation. The extra special-education money would be divided among local systems based on their enrollment of disabled students and community wealth. All systems would receive an extra $1,000 per disabled student to help defray the cost of bus transportation.

The proposals to the General Assembly and the governor will be made this year despite the task force's decision to ask for a one-year delay in most of its work - examining how Maryland funds its schools, with the goal of trying to reduce inequities among districts.

The task force expects to present those recommendations in time for the General Assembly session in 2002, thereby giving a consultant time to do a detailed analysis of how much money it would take to ensure an adequate education for all students. Such an analysis could result in a proposal for the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on education.

In the meantime, the task force agreed to urge that current education financing legislation be extended for a year because many of the laws are to expire in 2002.

"School systems need to feel secure, that there is legislation there to ensure that they will have money," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and commission member.

With the renewed legal battle between Baltimore school officials and the state over the city's request for more aid, the panel's work is being closely watched, because all local districts are hoping for more money.

A group of officials from rural Maryland school systems also met Thursday in Annapolis to learn more about the city's lawsuit and to discuss filing their own suit.

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