Law firm hired to clear way for city suit

May 21, 1992|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Baltimore moved closer to initiating a school-funding lawsuit against the state yesterday when the Board of Estimates approved hiring a well-known Washington law firm to help with the legal groundwork necessary for a suit.

The board yesterday approved spending as much as $29,000 to hire Hogan and Hartson, a Washington law firm that represents about 30 school districts across the nation in a variety of school-funding and desegregation actions.

For now, the firm is being paid to help city lawyers collect information, conduct legal research and prepare a draft of a suit. If the city decides to move forward with the lawsuit, it will pay the firm another fee, according to a memo that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke sent to the Board of Estimates.

Last week, Mr. Schmoke said that the city will sue the state over school funding, a move that angered some state legislators but heartened many education advocates who for years have argued that city schools are underfunded.

"The disparities between school systems in Maryland are worse in 1992 than they were in 1986," Mr. Schmoke said.

Susan Goering, legal director of the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, which has been researching a possible lawsuit against the state, said a suit against Maryland would likely be precedent-setting because it would focus squarely on whether Baltimore schools are funded well enough to provide a "thorough and efficient" education as required in the state constitution.

Several other education lawsuits filed against states around the country have focused on a combination of funding-equity issues and the constitutional question of adequacy, she said.

In 1983, a city-led suit that focused on spending disparities between the city and wealthy counties in Maryland failed.

Legal experts said an ACLU lawsuit is likely to be filed in addition to a city lawsuit, with the ACLU naming students and parents as plaintiffs, while the city would be the plaintiff in its suit. Even if two suits are eventually filed, they will likely be tried together, experts said.

In his memo to the board, Mr. Schmoke said funding levels in city schools are so low that "school administrators simply do not have enough money for the teachers, books, materials programs and other essential teaching and learning resources that are necessary for the city to comply with the standards for an adequate or basic public school education that are mandated by the constitution of Maryland."

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