Boost aid to rescue schools, Amprey urges State asked for 35% more to reverse 'suicidal direction'

August 27, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer

Baltimore schools need at least $127 million more in state aid next year to help reverse their "suicidal direction," Superintendent Walter G. Amprey told a panel studying public school financing yesterday.

Testifying before the 23-member Governor's Commission on School Funding, Dr. Amprey said the system desperately needs the money for teachers, psychologists and social workers, employee training, books and supplies, dropout and truancy prevention, librarians, computers, art classes and physical education.

We're out of time and we're out of tricks, and there's evidence of that every day," said Dr. Amprey, who is entering his third year as superintendent. "What we have created is a suicidal direction that will cause the demise of all of us. Baltimore's problem is our state's problem."

The increase he requested would raise total state spending fothe city schools by more than 35 percent from the current estimated $360 million.

The 177-school system's budget totals about $617 million, which includes city, state and federal sources.

Members of the commission, headed by Chamber of CommercPresident Donald P. Hutchinson, expressed support for Dr. Amprey and his goals and shared his alarm over the shortfalls the city system faces.

But the members said fiscal realities make anything close to such a large increase unlikely. Trying to cope with steadily declining revenues, the state has gone through nine rounds of budget slashing since the 1991 fiscal year, resulting

spending cuts of almost $2 billion and the elimination of more than 5,000 jobs.

The commission, formed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer in May, 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. The commission will make recommendations on how to divide among the 23 counties and Baltimore the more than $2 billion a year the state spends to run the public schools. It also is likely to recommend whether the amount spent should be increased.

School spending in Maryland varies widely. It averaged $5,823 per pupil in 1991-1992, the last year for which statistics are available, but ranged from $7,377 in Montgomery County to $4,706 in Caroline County. In Baltimore, per-pupil spending averaged $5,182 that year.

Charles L. Benton, a commission member and the state's secretary of budget and fiscal planning, dismissed as "unfeasible" tax increases and cuts in noneducation state spending to foot the bill for a possible increase in aid to Baltimore.

Alluding to battles over education funding in other states, including Texas and New Jersey, he said, "There is great reluctance by most legislatures to increase taxes. In states grappling with the education funding issue, their ultimate solutions may lean more toward redistribution" of existing money earmarked for schools.

But state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore -- who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Health, Education and Human Resources -- urged fellow commission members to avoid being defeatist as they strive to meet local school districts' needs.

"I find we always manage to do the things we believe are most important," she said. "I don't think this commission should assume we can't move, that we're in a straitjacket."

Dr. Amprey, suggesting that such a redistribution is in order, argued that Baltimore's school system faces much more daunting challenges than do surrounding counties and that the city therefore needs at least as much as, say, Baltimore or Howard counties.

Like many urban school systems, he said, Baltimore schools confront high rates of poverty, teen-age pregnancy, dropouts and poor performance.

Without huge increases in state spending, the superintendent said, it's "unreasonable" to expect the city to meet new standards required by the state under the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program.

Results of the standardized tests that form the basis for the program will become particularly significant now that the state has the power to seize control of schools that fail to meet minimum standards.

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

Instead, the mayor says, he wants to work with the funding commission to address the disparities that result in Maryland's richest public school system spending about 55 percent more to educate its students than does the state's poorest school district.

Mr. Schmoke has expressed optimism about the commission's prospects but said he would revisit the idea of a suit if the commission's work and any subsequent action by the General Assembly proved inadequate. But he said a suit would be a last resort.

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