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School budget woes hit the suburbs; how will Hogan respond?

Baltimore County’s school board just voted to send County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. a budget request he says the county can’t afford. There’s actually talk in the county about raising taxes for the first time since the ‘90s to avoid cuts to the schools.

The Howard County school board made significant cuts from Superintendent Michael Martirano’s budget out of concern that the resources he says are necessary are beyond the county’s means. County Executive Calvin Ball says even the reduced request is “a big challenge … to fund without significantly raising taxes or cutting other critical services.”

The Harford County school board voted this week to add $5 million to Superintendent Sean Bulson’s spending proposal in an effort to restore some of the 179 educational positions he would have cut in an effort to balance the budget. Even if County Executive Barry Glassman approves it — no sure thing — more than 100 positions will be lost, meaning larger class sizes and fewer programs.

Carroll County’s school board just approved their first budget in more than 10 years that doesn't cut spending, but county commissioners have already expressed some skepticism about whether the county can afford both teacher raises and the 29 new positions Superintendent Steve Lockard requested. The system has lost 375 employees since fiscal 2008.

Anne Arundel County Superintendent George Arlotto believes the county needs to add 201 more teachers, plus additional social workers, guidance counselors, psychologists and special education assistants. School board members are expected to add even more to the budget for programs constituents requested during last year’s campaigns, and County Executive Steuart Pittman, who also campaigned on increasing education funding, is set to engage county residents in a conversation about spending priorities — and the possibility of new revenues. Accomplishing that may require an end-run around Arundel’s tax cap.

Most of the conversation about increased school funding that has accompanied the findings of the Kirwan Commission has centered on Baltimore City, and for good reason. Its needs are far more profound than any other jurisdiction — for example, it has nearly as many students in schools with extreme concentrations of poverty (more than 80 percent eligibility for free- and reduced-price meals) as the rest of the state put together. But the struggle to provide the adequate education Maryland’s constitution requires for all students isn’t just a Baltimore problem. Increasingly, the suburbs are having a hard time keeping up with their needs — and in some cases, notably Harford, they are at risk of regressing.

The General Assembly is working on taking some preliminary steps to implement the Kirwan recommendations even in advance of its finalization of new funding formulas, which is expected this fall. Among the goals for the year are increased support for special education students, grants to address concentrations of poverty, matching funds for teacher raises and start-up funding for an oversight board to provide accountability for the new spending. That means finding about $125 million more than Gov. Larry Hogan set aside for enhanced school funding in next year’s budget — not easy, but doable.

Things get much harder after that, though. Full implementation of Kirwan would mean an increase in education spending over current levels of $3.8 billion a year a decade from now, a tab that would be split between the state and local governments in a manner yet to be determined.

It should be clear by now that local governments’ capacity to support education is tapped out under current fiscal realities. The state is not in much better shape. Though Governor Hogan was able to balance his fiscal 2020 budget proposal with little difficulty, his budget department is predicting a nearly $6 billion gap between available revenues and projected spending over the subsequent four years.

Maryland’s school systems are at a turning point. We can adopt the Kirwan reforms and produce a system that will rank among the world’s best, or we can accept a steady backsliding toward mediocrity or worse. The Kirwan Commission’s findings tell us that excellence is possible, but it will take a monumental effort to build political support in every county for the sacrifices necessary to achieve it. Only Governor Hogan has the standing to do that. The latest Goucher Poll shows he has a 69 percent job approval rating — just slightly above the 64 percent who say Maryland spends too little on public education. The legislature has a crucial role to play here. So do county executives and advocacy groups like the teachers union. But Governor Hogan needs to take the lead.

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