State keeps an eye on school spending Lawsuit by Baltimore seeks more funding

September 20, 1995|By William F. Zorzi Jr. and Jean Thompson | William F. Zorzi Jr. and Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

As Baltimore takes its fight for millions in new Maryland school aid to court, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and others in state government say they are willing to boost funding, but want assurances that the city is spending its education dollars well.

While few questioned Baltimore's need for additional funds to educate its 113,000 students, the governor and other state officials point out that writing a check is not the way to ensure that city children receive the "adequate" education that Maryland is constitutionally obligated to provide.

"I would urge, try and put some additional resources into the city and other jurisdictions," Mr. Glendening said yesterday, "but we've got to continue to focus on management and performance. The problem's not just about money. It's really about management of the school system, discipline problems, accountability and whether we're using our money properly."

Baltimore receives about $333 million from the state for school operations. But in a lawsuit filed Friday, Baltimore is arguing that the sum is not enough, given the challenges of an urban setting and the city's limited ability to supplement its budget with local tax revenues. Baltimore contributed $195 million, and the federal government provided the balance of this year's $647 million school budget.

"There are many school improvements that could be made right now, in the school system, by the school system, with the funds that they have," said Montgomery County Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Democrat and chairwoman of a House Appropriations subcommittee on education and economic development. She represents a wealthier county that typically reacts competitively when Baltimore sought school aid increases.

The state officials' comments begin to frame Maryland's basic stance in the school-funding debate. If the case goes to trial, the school system's handling of millions in tax-supported funds likely will be a target of the defense.

"If we could resolve it out of court we would love to do that, but there is just no history of doing that with the state successfully," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said.

Expecting challenges to the school administration, city attorneys carefully worded the lawsuit to highlight needs of city children.

"Our administration has been managing scarcity, and that's a difficult burden," Mr. Schmoke said. Recent restructuring, including a continuing shift of spending decisions from the central office to principals and school-improvement teams, demonstrates Baltimore's commitment to responsible management, he said.

In addition to its funding request, the city's lawsuit seeks to block Maryland's efforts to intervene in schools that do not meet state education standards.

The state school board is overseeing reorganizations at five low-performing Baltimore schools, to which Maryland contributed $1.5 million in new aid after a protracted battle with the city school board this year.

The city does not quibble with the state over its authority to enforce standards, but over who will bear the financial burden of retooling schools, Mr. Schmoke said.

Phillip H. Farfel, city school board president, elaborated: "We feel that until [funding] is addressed, the specific interventions that don't get at the heart of the problem should be halted. When additional resources are provided . . . then we certainly want to work cooperatively with the state."

But the filing of the lawsuit may make cooperation difficult.

"I find that outrageous," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "The whole point of all this money and the [reform] process is to educate the students. Show me you know what you are doing with the money you have."

Mr. Glendening, who has been an ally of Mr. Schmoke, said he wants to see "a serious accountability effort" by the city.

The governor did not hide his disappointment at the city's long-expected decision to sue.

At Mr. Glendening's request, city and state representatives privately have been negotiating toward a settlement of school funding and management issues.

The mayor has his supporters.

"Everyone knows that the city deserves additional school aid," said state Sen. John A. Pica, Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the city's Senate delegation. "I think the mayor is just protecting the city's interest."

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