The "APEX" program, Maryland's ambitious, five-year school aid initiative, is on a collision course with fiscal reality.
Enacted with high hopes in 1987, the "Action Plan for Educational Excellence" was intended to boost the state's share of aid to local school districts.
But as the program enters its fifth year, that share is projected to be exactly what it was at the start.
The millions of extra dollars pumped into local education simply weren't enough to keep pace with spiraling costs, fiscal experts say.
And the well has begun to run dry.
State legislators, under pressure to chop the budget because of the state's serious economic problems, already are talking about cuts in the $87 million funding increase that state law mandates for the APEX program in fiscal 1992, which begins July 1.
The APEX law will require an even bigger increase in state funding for fiscal 1993 -- an estimated $182 million. And neither Schaefer administration officials nor legislators are saying where the new money would come from, casting doubt on whether APEX can survive in its present form.
Today, a state Senate committee was to hear testimony on a pair of bills that could signal the start of an intense debate about the future of APEX.
One measure, introduced for the Schaefer administration, would skim $19.4 million from one part of the program in fiscal 1992 and use it to fund administration education initiatives. The new "Schools For Success Fund" would include selected grants, prekindergarten programs and teacher training. That amount would increase to $50 million in the following year.
Administration officials say the money still would fund local school programs and be doled out based on enrollment. But local officials oppose the bill as an assault on their authority by the governor, and some view it as an actual cut in state aid.
"That is absolutely ridiculous," said Bill Ecker, Caroline County school superintendent and a spokesman for the state's superintendents. "For the state to pull out anything for grants after the fact -- that's wrong."
Meanwhile, another bill, supported by a coalition of school-aid advocates, would revise the aid formula to funnel even more money into APEX than under current law.
That idea already has drawn fire from some legislative leaders, who warn that rather than increasing APEX, they may be forced to cut it in fiscal 1992 because of the state's budget problems. Cutting APEX would require a change in the state law, and legislators already are discussing that possibility.
Lawmakers especially are concerned that school districts may use the increased aid to raise teacher salaries at a time when state workers are being denied pay raises.
"If that's what the money's to be used for, it's certainly a prime target to be cut," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
Levitan, D-Montgomery, said some legislators were considering making cuts in APEX and linking them to increases in teachers' salaries.
"They're going to get a message in writing from me and from others," he said, referring to local school districts.
The APEX dilemma has its roots in a funding goal enacted in 1980. The idea was to have the state share in 75 percent of the costs of educating a pupil in Maryland. The state's exact share varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, with poorer jurisdictions getting a larger state share.
However, the state never met its 75 percent goal because legislators, from the beginning, capped the annual funding increases. As local education spending rose -- driven in part by teacher salary raises -- the state fell short of the 75 percent target.
Lawmakers reaffirmed the 75 percent goal in 1987 when they enacted the formal APEX program, which committed the state to reaching the goal by fiscal 1993. The goal was to be reached gradually through phased-in, fixed-dollar increases, but those increases have failed to keep pace with inflation. The portion of school costs in which the state takes a share actually remained exactly the same -- 70.4 percent -- between fiscal 1988 and fiscal 1992.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer put the full APEX increase in the fiscal 1992 budget that he submitted to the General Assembly last month and remains committed to the program, an aide said.
"He balanced the rest of the state budget around his commitment to education," said Judy Sachwald, the governor's executive assistant for education.
As for the $182 million increase that APEX would require next year, "the governor wants to live up to the APEX commitment," she said.
But legislators warn that APEX may require some cuts, though no specific dollar amounts are on the table yet. APEX already is on a list of possible cuts by the legislature's top fiscal adviser.
Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-City, who chairs an education subcommittee, said, "I hope we would not reduce the money. But I fervently hope the subdivisions don't think they can keep putting it into [pay] raises."
Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg urged legislators to "be very sensitive to cuts that would cause very serious damage to our educational system," but he conceded that the idea of cutting APEX as a way of reining in teacher salary increases "is consistent with the austere measures being made at all levels."
Meanwhile, local officials worry that cuts will hurt educational programs, especially those in the poorer subdivisions.