Schmoke decides against suing state to get more money for poorer schools

June 11, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that the city is dropping plans to file a lawsuit seeking to force the state to spend more money on poor school districts.

Rather than litigate the matter, Mr. Schmoke said, he wants to work with the Governor's Commission on School Funding to address the disparities that result in Maryland's richest public school system spending some 55 percent more to educate students than does the state's poorest school district.

"I think it is better to work in cooperation with the commission than to battle it," Mr. Schmoke said.

The mayor, who has expressed interest in running for governor next year, said he decided to drop the suit last week after meeting with Gov. William Donald Schaefer to talk about the commission.

"I think the governor is really serious about this," Mr. Schmoke said. "I think he realizes that the commission's work could result in one of the most significant achievements of his political career."

While Mr. Schmoke expressed optimism about the commission's prospects, he did say that he would revisit the idea of a suit should the commission's work and any subsequent action by the Maryland General Assembly prove inadequate. But he said a suit would be a last resort.

"I am not holding a sword of Damocles here," he said. "In no way am I looking forward to the failure of this commission."

The 25-member commission formed by Mr. Schaefer is charged with studying school funding in Maryland and with developing effective ways to hold schools accountable for their performance. The group has been asked to prepare a report for the governor by November -- in time to prepare legislation for the 1994 session of the General Assembly. Its first meeting is scheduled for today.

The mayor's announcement caught by surprise many education advocates who support the idea of a lawsuit. But at the same time, most of them agreed that the mayor made the only pragmatic move.

"It seems like the reasonable thing for the mayor to do," said Mindy Mintz, head of Advocates for Children and Youth. "No one believes that litigation is the answer to our problems. It is only a last resort."

But George N. Buntin, executive director of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that the mayor was placing too much faith in a gubernatorial commission.

"I think the mayor made a mistake. We have had education commission after education commission in Maryland. And I don't really see anything occurring from another one," Mr. Buntin said.

"The problem is that what we're ultimately talking about is a redistribution of income, and that's not going to happen unless it's forced by the courts."

"It was always, of course, politically dangerous for someone who might have statewide ambitions to threaten a statewide lawsuit," said Donald P. Hutchinson, who is chairing the commission. "I think this gives him an opportunity to take a step backward."

Susan Goering, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland, said that her group will wait to see what the governor's commission does before deciding whether to press ahead with a lawsuit on which it has been working.

The ACLU originally envisioned filing suit in conjunction with the city. But Ms. Goering said that the group also has the option of filing a suit independently.

"We have the option to go forward on our own," she said. "But we think [the commission] can make a difference. But it has to be substantial to forestall a lawsuit."

Ms. Goering said that if a suit was filed it would have involved the city school system, and probably would cost less than $1 million to litigate.

Mr. Schmoke's decision to back off the planned lawsuit heartened several state legislators, who were angry with the mayor last year when he announced plans to sue the state over education funding.

"Once the governor made the decision to look at the funding issue the mayor had no other recourse, given the kind of issues that would have raised in a court battle, but to post pone the decision to move forward with the suit," said Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, D-Baltimore.

Maryland spent an average of $5,823 per student on public education in 1991-1992, the last year for which statistics are available. Per-pupil spending ranged from $7,377 in Montgomery County to $4,706 in Caroline County. In Baltimore, per-pupil spending averaged $5,182 that year.

Mr. Schmoke said that to be successful in his eyes, the gubernatorial commission's plan must result in legislation that minimizes the spending gaps between Maryland's 24 school districts.

He also said that any plan must result in Baltimore and other poor school districts receiving enough state aid that they have a real shot at being successful.

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