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Maryland education commission calls Gov. Hogan’s criticism unfair, urges him to back plan to revamp schools

A commission charged with finding ways to improve public education in Maryland will meet amid an intensifying debate over whether taxpayers can afford to put more money into schools.
A commission charged with finding ways to improve public education in Maryland will meet amid an intensifying debate over whether taxpayers can afford to put more money into schools. (maroke / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A commission studying how to improve Maryland’s public schools pressed back Thursday at Gov. Larry Hogan, who recently called the group’s work “half baked.”

“That is so unfair to say that and it sends such a signal to the state, such a negative signal to the state, and demeans the hard work of so many people,” said William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chairman of the Kirwan Commission, which has proposed a host of expensive improvements to public education.

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Kirwan was responding to a recent comments by the Republican governor, who suggested massive state tax increases would be necessary to pay for the new school programs. Hogan said it was irresponsible to make recommendations without offering a way to pay for them.

The commission has been meeting this summer with the goal of recommending funding formulas to pay for the recommendations. The group is expected to suggest that the state and local governments share the cost. The commission has called for increasing teacher pay and providing full-day prekindergarten for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds, among other proposals that together would cost $3.8 billion a year once all were phased in over a decade.

Kirwan said Hogan should work with the commission, rather than against it.

“I respectfully urge the governor to work with us to achieve the best possible outcome for our children, instead of against them and our state’s future,” said Kirwan, former president of the University of Maryland, College Park and former chancellor of the state’s public university system.

Hogan’s budget secretary, David Brinkley, who is a member of the commission, defended the governor’s remarks and offered a softer interpretation.

Hogan, he said, isn’t against improving public schools. But the governor is concerned that the recommendations were moved forward without a funding source.

“No one has looked at that camera up there and said how we’ll pay for it,” Brinkley said, gesturing to a camera in the Annapolis hearing room that broadcasts commission meetings on the internet.

Brinkley said Hogan has been a “good partner” by allowing a bill to become law that requires an initial infusion of $850 million in school funding over the next two years. The money is to start paying for expanding prekindergarten, increasing teacher salaries and adding community services at schools. Hogan did not put his signature on the law, saying he had “significant reservations” about it.

Brinkley said Hogan gave a 20-minute speech on a variety of issues at the Maryland Association of Counties conference Saturday, and critics are picking one part to criticize.

“When you look at the entirety of the message, he was right on,” Brinkley said.

Hogan contended during the speech that the commission’s recommended improvements would require a 39% increase in income tax, 89% increase in sales tax or 535% increase in property tax.

Joan Carter Conway, a former Democratic state senator from Baltimore and a commission member, said the panel doesn’t know yet if such a large tax increase would be needed. She said she was “devastated” to hear the governor’s criticism of the commission’s work.

Democratic leaders argue routine state revenue growth will add billions to the state budget for education over a decade without additional taxes. But the programs proposed by the commission cost about 30% more than projected growth would cover.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat and commission member, said he had to remind himself to “stay calm” after hearing the governor’s speech.

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“It is difficult to convey the degree of anger and frustration that I felt,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said the commission has worked on its recommendations for three years and is in the midst of suggesting ways to pay for it.

“Of course we have to pay for it. Of course it’s going to be challenging. But what we have to do is lead, and we lead by setting forth a plan,” he said.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who also serves on the commission, said the uncertainty of a financial plan is stressful for county leaders. They don’t know how much money they’ll have to find in their budgets.

“That’s part of the nervousness, I guess,” said Glassman, a Republican who leads the Maryland Association of Counties. “Not knowing is sometimes worse than knowing what you have to deal with.”

As the commission’s all-day meeting continued Thursday, Hogan’s office doubled-down on the governor’s criticism.

“We have heard nothing today from partisan legislators to suggest they have a real plan, a strategy or even an inkling of how to fund the Kirwan blueprint,” Hogan spokeswoman Kata Hall said in a statement. She issued the statement as the Kirwan Commission was still meeting.

Hall said the governor would continue to express concerns about potential tax increases, “even if it means some bruised egos along the way.”

The Kirwan Commission’s recommendations on funding are expected in September.

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