Plan to fund city schools takes hit


Maryland's highest court undermined yesterday a Baltimore judge's latest effort to have the state provide millions of dollars in extra aid to the city schools this year.

In a 39-page ruling, the Court of Appeals also reversed a portion of Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan's ruling that would have given the Baltimore school system more time to eliminate its $58 million budget deficit.

Kaplan oversees a 10-year-old class action lawsuit, Bradford v. Maryland, filed by parents and joined by the city and the city school board, that claims the state does not provide city students an adequate eduction. Though the parties involved in the suit disagreed on how yesterday's ruling should be interpreted, everyone agreed Kaplan's order is unlikely to result in extra dollars for Baltimore schools this year.

The high court's decision had been eagerly awaited by education advocates who argued that the school system's deficit-reduction efforts were harmful to students and wanted the court to agree that city schools needed more dollars.

The state, however, argued in an appeal to the high court that Kaplan overstepped his authority when he ordered the school system, city and state to immediately funnel at least $30 million more into Baltimore's schools. In his ruling, Kaplan maintained that the state had "unlawfully underfunded" city schools by $400 million to $800 million since 2000, because the Maryland Constitution requires the state to provide an adequate education for all children.

Yesterday, the state, the city and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland - which represents the parents in the school funding case - claimed the high court's ruling as a partial victory.

State officials said they felt vindicated because the high court ruled Kaplan's order did not explicitly direct them to give more money to the schools. "It doesn't order the state to do anything," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

At a hearing before the appeals court in March, the judges questioned whether Kaplan's ruling was a final order or an "interim" decision - as it did not contain final orders for the state.

Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner questioned the range of dollar amounts in Kaplan's ruling. "How is this the final judgment?" Wilner asked from the bench. "What is it the state has been asked to do?"

Yesterday, the high court said that Kaplan's order was not a final judgment - a requirement for this type of appeal - and rejected that portion of the state's petition. It did not rule on the merits of Kaplan's order.

"There clearly has been no final judgment in this case," Wilner wrote on behalf of the unanimous court. "The case is very much alive in circuit court."

Jervis S. Finney, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s chief legal adviser, said the court made it clear that the state has a right to appeal Kaplan's order if it becomes final, and that there are hints in the ruling that Kaplan's orders might not withstand scrutiny by the appeals court.

The ACLU, however, contends Kaplan's order remains valid and was not undermined simply because the high court said it could not be appealed at this time. "Overall, we're very pleased that the high court rebuffed the state's attempt to overturn Judge Kaplan's ruling in the case," said Bebe Verdery, the ACLU's education reform director. "That means the Circuit Court's ruling stands as law."

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said Mayor Martin O'Malley and the administration hope more funding will come out of yesterday's ruling.

"Hopefully, what will now happen is that the state will now live up to Judge Kaplan's order and give city schools the funding the state is required to provide," Tyler said last night. "The truth of the matter is that all issues that were important to the city and school system came out favorably for us."

The state and ACLU, however, acknowledged that the ruling was not everything they had hoped for.

"The fullest victory would have been for the court to end" Kaplan's oversight of city school funding, said assistant state attorney general Valerie Cloutier. "But, in a way, it did that by saying that nothing [in Kaplan's order] is binding."

The ACLU was disappointed that the high court upheld the state law requiring the city school system to eliminate its deficit by next year.

"We've always agreed it was important that the school system pay off its deficit and live within its means," Verdery said. "We were concerned only that paying it down on this accelerated schedule would use funds that were needed for students."

The city school system, a plaintiff with the ACLU in the case, has been working to comply with a state law by paying down the deficit by next year. School officials released a statement yesterday saying they were pleased the high court upheld the law. But the statement continued: "The State was unsuccessful in having Judge Kaplan's ruling overturned which found that Baltimore City Schools were entitled to additional state funding."

Although it did not achieve its goal of slowing the system's budget paydown, the ACLU said it intends to continue monitoring the adequacy of state funding in Baltimore's schools.

Verdery said the state should not be celebrating: "To me they lost the legal case, and they won not having to pay any money this school year. If they consider it a win that schoolchildren in Baltimore did not receive additional funding this year, it's a sad victory indeed."

Sun staff writer William Wan and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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