O'Malley defends cuts in school aid

The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley defended his plan yesterday to decrease public school budgets by about $69 million next fiscal year as officials from hard-hit areas vowed to fight the proposed cuts.

O'Malley, a Democrat, said that Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso's contention that the governor was destroying years of education gains was "patently false." O'Malley urged the popular and outspoken educator to understand that the financial pain caused by the national economic meltdown must be widely distributed.

"I can't sugarcoat the fact that Dr. Alonso ... will see a 2.9 percent reduction," said O'Malley after speaking with Alonso by phone yesterday afternoon. "I don't blame him for considering that devastating. But I would ask him to consider the perspective of how much pain and suffering there is all throughout our state."

Under O'Malley's draft 2010 budget, school districts that include some of the state's poorest areas would be hit hardest by the cuts. Baltimore would receive $23 million less than the previous year, and Prince George's County would lose $35 million. Alonso called those cuts "the effective rollback of Thornton," a reference to a landmark education funding plan that has required lawmakers to pour billions more into public schools.

"That is patently false," O'Malley said. "This budget is fully funding the Thornton aid at a record amount."

Overall education spending is one of the few areas to see an increase in the O'Malley proposal released this week, but direct state aid to some local jurisdictions was cut.

The governor said that could change if Congress passes a federal stimulus bill that directs more to Maryland than the $350 million estimate that O'Malley's draft budget assumes.

Del. Curt Anderson, a Democrat and chairman of the Baltimore House delegation, said city lawmakers from the House of Delegates and Senate demanded an "emergency meeting" with O'Malley on Monday.

"We want to let him know, in no uncertain terms, that this is the most important thing to our delegation," Anderson said. "It's counterproductive for us to make threats at this point, but the governor knows we have a lot of things at our disposal. He has a lot of things at his disposal."

The governor has agreed to meet with the city lawmakers Monday afternoon, and he will also meet with the Prince George's County delegation, said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

Del. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who leads the delegation's education subcommittee, said she was "appalled" and "outraged" at the proposed budget cuts and suggested that aggrieved lawmakers might band together to oppose bills sponsored by the administration if O'Malley does not relent on their demands.

Particularly irksome to the city lawmakers and to Alonso is that affluent Montgomery County got a $27 million increase to its schools in O'Malley's budget, while poorer districts are slated for cuts.

"I want the package for education changed to be equitable and to consider what is adequate for children," Alonso said after his talk with the governor yesterday. "Clearly, any distribution of resources in the state that shortchanges Baltimore City and Prince George's is unacceptable."

O'Malley, a former Baltimore mayor, said he would be willing to discuss changes to the formulas that determine how aid to education is apportioned, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch played down any serious consideration of that by the legislature this session. "I doubt there will be any revisiting of the formula," said Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "I think the formulas are overall well thought-out."

Baltimore Sun reporter Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.

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