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Miller, black lawmakers voice concern over school cuts

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and members of the Legislative Black Caucus spoke out Thursday against cuts Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed in state aid for local education.

Miller said legislators acknowledge the need to cut state spending, but predicted the General Assembly would insist on changes in Hogan's proposed budget.

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"We've got to try to get more money back in the classroom," Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, told his chamber at the conclusion of Thursday's session.

Afterward, Miller said his remarks had been prompted by concerns he's heard from county officials and from African-American legislators. He acknowledged that Hogan had boosted funding for school construction, but questioned whether buildings were a bigger priority than giving teachers the resources they need.

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Miller said Hogan's proposal to curtail future increases in state aid to schools would be a "very difficult sell" in the assembly, as would cuts to community colleges.

"We've been No. 1 in terms of education for too long — we can't drop backwards," Miller said, referring to the state's five-year run at the top of Education Week's rating of the nation's best schools. Maryland slipped to No. 3 in this year's rankings after the magazine altered its judging criteria.

Miller noted that Hogan had been elected by a wide margin on a pledge to rein in state spending and lower taxes. The Senate president acknowledged that lawmakers need to heed that political message, but he made clear they'd push back on education funding.

"My thinking is there'll be change in what he's proposed," Miller said. But he counseled legislators to "do this with smiles on our faces ... disagree in an agreeable fashion."

While the General Assembly does not have the authority to add spending to a governor's budget, leaders can use their political power to negotiate changes.

Earlier Thursday, members of the Legislative Black Caucus called Hogan's proposed cuts to local education aid unacceptable, warning that they could lead to more than 1,000 teacher layoffs across the state. The caucus stopped short, however, of taking a position against the budget.

Leaders of the 46-member caucus said the budget would have a disproportionately harsh impact on Baltimore and on Prince George's County, jurisdictions where African-Americans make up a majority of residents.

The caucus chairwoman, Democratic Del. Barbara Robinson of Baltimore, said the cuts would cost the city education system an average of $100,000 per school.

Dels. Curt Anderson and Jay Walker, the chairmen of the Baltimore and Prince George's House delegations, respectively, released a letter they wrote to Hogan requesting a meeting to discuss the proposed cuts in education aid. The two, both Democrats, expressed support for Hogan's effort to eliminate the state's long-term revenue shortfall, but said his cuts place an unnecessary burden on children and working families.

"It's not an or-else situation, but we want to let him know how concerned we are," Anderson said.

Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said the governor's budget provides more money per student to Baltimore than any other jurisdiction in the state and gives Prince George's an overall $35 million increase in local aid.

"Guaranteeing that Maryland's education system remains one of the best in the country requires all us working together as one team, and the governor looks forward to sitting down and finding ways to accomplish these shared goals," she said.

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