ANNAPOLIS -- Even if the Maryland General Assembly provides full funding for next year's long scheduled, $184 million increase in education aid, schools won't be much better off because of cuts in other education programs, the House Appropriations Committee was told yesterday.
Susan R. Buswell, lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said deep cuts in state programs that help Baltimore and the 23 counties pay for school buses, Social Security and retirement benefits for teachers, out-of-state placement of special education students, and other educational programs could wipe out all but about $60 million of the one-year increase in school spending known as "APEX."
When coupled with large reductions in other state aid to local government, some of which will surely be passed on to the schools, she said, "We have built a hole in this year's budget that the $60 million won't begin to fill."
Ms. Buswell and other witnesses opposed to various education cuts in next year's budget, said their organizations would rather see taxes raised to pay for the programs.
V. Thomas Gray II, spokesman for the Maryland State Teachers Association, and Barbara Neustadt of the Maryland School Bus Contractors Association complained there is "no rationale" for a proposed $40 million reduction in the state's $141 million school bus program when student enrollment is expanding.
Ms. Neustadt and officials of the companies that operate half the state's school buses warned that cuts could result in the use of old or unsafe buses.
Legislators asked several witnesses what they would support instead of education cuts: reductions elsewhere in the budget or higher taxes? In each case, the witnesses said they -- or their organizations -- would support higher taxes.
Ms. Buswell reminded the legislators that some 20,000 people, many of them teachers and others in the education community, marched on the State House on the opening night of this year's session, urging that taxes be raised instead of forcing additional school cuts.
Ms. Buswell, a former delegate, told her one-time colleagues that she understood the General Assembly's reluctance to "dedicate" tax revenues for use in certain programs. But she said most polls show the public supports higher taxes if the money goes to education.
William R. Ecker, director of the Maryland Educational Consortium, which represents the school boards of the nine Eastern Shore counties, said his group supports taxes and has made that clear to House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, an Eastern Shoreman who has resisted tax increases so far.
But Mr. Ecker also said he understands the political dilemma in which legislators find themselves -- having to choose between drastic budget cuts or higher taxes.
"It's a tough position [when] someone asks you if you want air or water," he said.