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Mayor says cuts in education aid would hurt Baltimore

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told legislators Tuesday that proposed cuts in state education aid would harm the city and its schools, though she stopped short of saying they would lead to layoffs.

The mayor went to Annapolis to argue that $35 million in cuts to Baltimore schools contained in Gov. Larry Hogan's budget proposal was excessive and ill-advised.

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"I don't think we're going to grow our state by doing things that would jeopardize the progress we're seeing in the classroom," she said.

Rawlings-Blake said she didn't know whether the school system would have to lay off teachers, saying that would be decided by the school board and chief executive Gregory E. Thornton. But the mayor made clear she sees the cuts as a significant setback in her efforts to attract and retain residents.

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"When you face a deficit, you have to be very clear what your priorities are. Education is a priority," she said. "Our school system has improved. When things are moving in the right direction, it's not the time to change course."

The mayor spoke to a state Senate committee and to reporters afterward. A school system spokeswoman declined to comment.

The cuts in school aid reflect both a decision by Hogan to cut in half geographic aid that brought Baltimore $23 million last year and an increase in property tax assessments that boosted the city's wealth rating under a state formula.

Rawlings-Blake said the city's 3 percent growth in wealth per pupil led the state.

"It is a sign that our growth and economic development strategies are working," she said. "The flip side is the schools are penalized with a serious reduction in state aid."

The mayor said city officials are taking a look at such formulas and would be making recommendations to the General Assembly.

A Hogan spokeswoman, Erin Montgomery, rejected the mayor's criticism.

"Governor Hogan's budget includes $6.1 billion for K-12 education, a historic level of support, and it also fully funds school construction. Baltimore City and all of Maryland are facing the same challenge — the need to provide essential government services without spending money we don't have — and the governor looks forward to working with the mayor to achieve this goal," Montgomery said.

The Maryland Association of Boards of Education issued a statement Tuesday opposing the governor's cuts, which are part of his plan to close a roughly $800 million shortfall. Hogan is proposing to cut $143 million from projected spending on aid to school systems, leaving it to Baltimore and the counties to decide whether to make up the difference.

Verjeana Jacobs, the association president, called the proposed education cuts "stunning."

"The governor's budget would stall statewide progress to prepare our more than 860,000 students for success in college and career," Jacobs said.

Rawlings-Blake appeared on a panel representing the Maryland Municipal League, of which she is a vice president. The group, which represents officials from the cities and towns across the state, is especially concerned about state highway aid that was cut during the recession and never fully restored. The Maryland Association of Counties also is lobbying to restore the highway aid.

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Hogan promised during the campaign to restore the highway money, but didn't in his budget proposal for the year that begins July 1. Bruce Wahl, mayor of Chesapeake Beach and municipal league president, told lawmakers that Hogan's budget would give municipalities 70 percent less highway aid than the current budget.

Rawlings-Blake joined in the argument that the aid should be returned to pre-recession levels and put on a predictable formula. The mayor said the city has a backlog of work that needs to be done as a result of past cuts. "When it comes to funds for transportation, we are running on E," she said.

According to the Hogan administration, revised figures show the city will receive a $2.1 million increase in highway aid. Figures released with the budget last week showed a small decrease.

After her appearance before the Senate panel, Rawlings-Blake crossed the street to the House of Delegates building and dropped in on a briefing where she heard better news. State, city and school system officials told the House Appropriations Committee that the partnership formed in 2013 to carry out a $1.1 billion renovation of the city's aging schools was on track and on schedule.

Gary A. McGuigan, senior vice president at the Maryland Stadium Authority, said the plan is expected to rebuild or renovate 23-28 city schools, down from the 30-35 estimated at the time the legislature approved the ambitious plan in 2013.

Under the plan, the city, the school system and the state will each contribute $20 million a year to back bonds issued by the stadium authority for school construction projects.

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