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Baltimore school system prepares for possible legal battle over funding

The Baltimore school system appears to be getting ready for a major legal battle.

The school board approved a request Tuesday to amend its contract with the Whiteford, Taylor & Preston law firm, increasing the requested amount from $25,000 to $200,000. The new terms of the contract would include representing Baltimore City Public Schools in Bradford v. State of Maryland.

The Bradford suit — filed in 1994 by the ACLU and still open in Baltimore Circuit Court — argues that the state is failing to provide the kind of education Baltimore’s children are entitled to under state law.

A judge found that the state had not provided enough funds for schools, ruling in 2000 that the state should add about $2,600 more for each student.

The ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund invoked the still-active case last month in a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, in which they called on him to provide more funds for Baltimore schools.

The two organizations say that by the state’s own estimates city students are getting $290 million less than what’s needed to provide them with an “adequate” education as required by the Maryland constitution. Advocates said they hope the governor will work with them to address the shortfall, but they plan to pursue the matter if he doesn’t.

City schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster said the district agrees with the assertions made in the Bradford case. While the school system is not a party in the lawsuit, it would be affected by any movement in the case.

The amount for the law firm’s contract is based on an estimate of hours of legal consultation through to the end of this fiscal year.

“In anticipation of likely legal action related to Bradford, City Schools has requested that the Board of School Commissioners amend its existing contract with outside legal counsel to include litigation of this matter,” House-Foster said in a statement. “This step is being taken to ensure that counsel is fully engaged in all phases of the proceeding, as may be required.”

Hogan defended his education record in response to the joint letter from the ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He has repeatedly touted his administration’s “historically high” funding for education.

Under the governor’s proposed budget, each of the state’s local school systems would receive more state money in the next fiscal year than in the current year — including Baltimore City. This is despite a budget formula that, Hogan says, could have meant $11 million less in state aid for Baltimore public schools because of factors such as declining enrollment.

These funding formulas are now in a state of flux.

After the Bradford lawsuit and pressure from the courts, the state appointed the Thornton Commission, which rewrote the funding formula and recommended a steep increase in state aid to schools across the state. It has resulted in $1.3 billion more annually in education funding to schools across Maryland.

But the ACLU argues the formula was subsequently changed by the legislature so that the funding did not increase to keep pace with inflation, shortchanging the city and chronically underfunding its school system for years.

To revamp the funding formulas, the state convened another commission two years ago, known as the Kirwan Commission. Its recommendations have been delayed another year, which advocates see as just more time that students must wait on adequate education funding.

trichman@baltsun.com

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