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Baltimore and Prince George’s leaders express concern over Kirwan costs as legislature begins its work in Annapolis

Prince George's County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks talks about the Kirwan Commission recommendations on the opening day of the General Assembly in Annapolis.
Prince George's County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks talks about the Kirwan Commission recommendations on the opening day of the General Assembly in Annapolis. (Joshua McKerrow/Capital Gazette)

The two local leaders whose cash-strapped governments are being asked to pump hundreds of millions more into public schools came to the State House on Wednesday and expressed concerns about whether the plans are affordable.

At the opening of the 441st legislative session in Annapolis, both Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said they planned to ask state lawmakers to alter the Kirwan Commission’s plans that require each of their jurisdictions to spend more than $300 million a year in additional funds on public education by the end of the decade while asking nothing more of some wealthier counties.

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“My budget director said: If we did this, we’d just simply have to defund the police department,” Alsobrooks said.

The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — nicknamed the “Kirwan Commission” — is recommending free, full-day prekindergarten for low-income 3- and 4-year olds; increasing standards and services so that all students are ready for college or a career upon graduating high school; and establishing a strong accountability system to oversee its recommendations.

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If the commission’s plans are approved by the legislature, they would require the state government to spend $2.8 billion more on schools by 2030 and mandate $1.2 billion more from local governments for their school systems, for a total boost of $4 billion annually.

Of local jurisdictions, Baltimore and Prince George’s would foot the most expensive bills. Baltimore would have to pay $330 million more each year and Prince Georges’s would have to pay $360 million more by 2030. Baltimore would have to come up with the millions more quickly: $138 million more for schools by fiscal year 2022.

Meanwhile, seven counties, including some wealthier jurisdictions like Howard County, would not be required to pay even $1 more ― in part because those jurisdictions already provide robust funding for their local schools.

“Just like County Executive Alsobrooks, as you know Baltimore City is a poor city and we’re going to get hit pretty hard as well," said Young, who like Alsobrooks is a Democrat. “We’re going to work with our state leaders to figure this thing out so we all can come out solvent.”

Both leaders said they support the commission’s plans to boost public education, but they want changes to plans to send expensive bills to their governments.

Young already has asked all city agencies to plan to reduce their budgets 5% by 2022 due to Kirwan’s costs, according to a memo distributed to staff obtained by The Sun.

“It’s a lot of money,” Young said. “Our children deserve 21st century schools. Hopefully an investment in schools can lead to a reduction in crime. It will be money well spent. I’m looking to state leaders to figure out how we can get this done.”

Alsobrooks said funding the Kirwan Commission plans is “absolutely what has to happen for every child.”

“It is high time that we are serious about equitable education. We have an opportunity to do something about it,” Alsobrooks said, “What we have to keep our eye on ― Prince George’s and Baltimore City alike ― is: How is it the jurisdictions that need this the most are the two who can least afford it?

“How does that close the equity gap? So the formula that is being presented so far is unaffordable for Prince George’s. It’s unaffordable for Baltimore City,” she said. "That’s the work that has to be done this session. How do we do it in a way that does not bankrupt these two jurisdictions?”

In a pre-session interview with The Baltimore Sun, new Senate President Bill Ferguson said he was aware of the burden placed on the budgets of Baltimore and Prince George’s and that lawmakers would consider changes.

“We have to make sure it’s sustainable for locals,” Ferguson said. “We can’t just say, 'Now the locals have to put in more money. That would be a losing strategy and the wrong thing to do. Is there a place where the state can step in where there is an inequitable burden?”

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Meanwhile, the commission’s recommendations were discussed at the Annapolis Summit event sponsored by the Daily Record newspaper.

There, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan reiterated his concerns about how to pay for the Kirwan reforms, which he said are “good and worthwhile” recommendations.

“I’m not arguing with the fact we need to improve,” he said.

But if lawmakers aren’t going to raise taxes ― which he opposes ― Hogan questioned where the money would come from.

“What $4 billion are you going to take out of where? … This money is not just magical money,” he said.

House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Ferguson, meanwhile, repeated their commitment to finding more money for improvements to public education.

“We cannot let our children down,” Jones said at the pre-session event.

Ferguson said it’s important to focus on paying for the first four years of the 10-year phase-in of the education reforms, which include higher teacher salaries and more support for high-poverty schools, among other programs.

“When you build a house, you don’t start with picking a paint color. You start with the foundation,” Ferguson said.

He reiterated his commitment to funding the Kirwan reforms in his first speech after being elected Senate president later in the day.

He said it is “not normal or OK” that a child’s success is often determined by their neighborhood, race or income level.

“The good news is we can fix it,” he said.

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