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Baltimore could get state help with paying for new public school programs under proposed formula

Maryland lawmakers are considering changes to an education bill that would give Baltimore City and Prince George's County a break on how much they have to pay for improving public school programs.
Maryland lawmakers are considering changes to an education bill that would give Baltimore City and Prince George's County a break on how much they have to pay for improving public school programs.(Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Maryland lawmakers are weighing whether to give a break to Baltimore City on how much more money the city should contribute to additional programs for public schools.

Officials from Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and some small counties had raised concerns that they wouldn’t be able to afford their share of the cost of programs recommended by the state’s Kirwan Commission.

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While there’s broad support for many of the commission’s proposals — such as expanded prekindergarten and improved career- and college-prep programs — the eventual $4 billion annual price tag has given some officials pause. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has said the plans are well-meaning but “fiscally irresponsible.”

The additional spending would be split between the state government and local government. Baltimore City would be expected to eventually put more than $300 million extra a year into public schools by 2030.

Now, lawmakers are proposing changes to funding formulas that would take into account the challenges some local jurisdictions face in raising more money.

The revised formula would take the local share of the Kirwan programs and divide it by a figure that represents a jurisdiction’s wealth. The resulting ratio would show which jurisdictions would have a more difficult time raising money for education, and they would be eligible for more state contributions.

Baltimore City and Prince George’s County would be the biggest beneficiaries of the extra state aid. The counties of Allegany, Baltimore, Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Kent, Washington and Wicomico also would stand to gain.

“It achieves what the [Kirwan] commission set out from the beginning … to ensure there is parity across the board,” said Del. Alonzo T. Washington, a Prince George’s County Democrat who is proposing the change in his role as an education subcommittee chairman.

The result of the change in the formula would mean that the state’s share of the Kirwan programs — previously estimated at $2.8 billion annually by 2030 — would increase by $369 million.

Lawmakers separately are considering an array of options for raising state money for the Kirwan programs, including applying the sales tax to professional services, increasing the tobacco tax and creating a tax on nicotine vaping products, taxing digital downloads such as e-books and songs, creating a new tax on digital advertising and an array of corporate tax reforms. None of those tax changes has moved forward yet.

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Baltimore City officials are cautiously optimistic the proposed change would alleviate the burden on the city.

“The leadership has done a good job of figuring out how to blunt the impact,” said Lester Davis, a spokesman and lobbyist for Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

Davis said Young and city officials are committed to putting more money into education. But the city already charges the maximum local income tax and its property tax is the highest in the state, making it difficult to raise more money.

Young has asked city departments to find ways that they could cut money from their budgets that could be used instead for education.

“We’ve committed that we’ll have to step our game up,” Davis said.

Prince George’s County officials are waiting to see more details and how the finances will shake out with the proposed plan. But they’re optimistic that the changes will result in plans that are “equitable and sustainable for everyone,” said John Erzen, deputy chief of staff to County Executive Angela Alsobrooks.

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“We haven’t seen everything yet,” Erzen said. “We certainly think that with what we’ve seen thus far that we’re headed in the right direction.”

The change in the funding rules is among more than 300 amendments to the Kirwan Commission bill that lawmakers are considering. A pair of House of Delegates subcommittees is scheduled to consider and potentially vote Monday on the amendments.

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