ANNAPOLIS -- The budget bill approved by the General
Assembly last Friday not only gives county governments the authority to cut education spending but also to decide exactly what gets axed from school budgets, according to Maryland's attorney general.
In a six-page letter presented to Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. concludes that the controversial legislation is constitutional and will give jurisdictions the power to exercise a virtual line-item veto over their school budgets.
"Not only can they [county governments] reopen their school budgets, but they'll have more authority than they normally do in the budget process where they could normally only touch categories of spending," said Richard E. Israel, an assistant attorney general.
"Now, they will be able to touch categories, sub-categories and even individual items."
The attorney general's opinion confirms the worst fears of local education officials who already have attacked the policy as a potential disaster for the normally autonomous school systems. Legislators added the language to their $450 million deficit reduction plan at the request of Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall.
Under the Neall amendment, teaching positions and classroom in structional materials must be spared by the county governing body.
The legislation also contains bad news for government employee labor unions. It will give counties the authority to ignore labor contracts, if necessary, in order to balance budgets, Mr. Israel said.
The bill, which Governor Schaefer has indicated he will sign into law this morning, reduces local aid to Baltimore and the state's 23 counties by $68 million on top of the $115 million already
targeted for cuts by the governor.
With county governments now looking for ways to make up that loss in state aid, this new power comes at an opportune moment. But none of the Baltimore area county executives or county councils has announced plans to mandate how education budgets will be cut.
In Anne Arundel, for instance, Mr. Neall said that he plans to seek a voluntary wage reduction from school system employees and, if they decline, will give the school board a target amount to cut and allow it to make the specific choices.
Jane R. Stern, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said that the legislation adds confusion to the already "devastating" cuts in state aid to education.
For most of this century, Maryland counties have not had the authority to touch school budgets once they were struck.
The 75-year-old law was a product of education reform that sought to take politics out of the process.