Rawlings threatens to hold up school aid Legislator ties funds to reform plan

February 08, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

With a threat to hold up millions in school aid, state Del. Howard P. Rawlings has stepped up the pressure on city and state officials to forge a pact reshaping Baltimore school government.

Exerting his influence as chairman of the House appropriations committee, Mr. Rawlings has called on state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Baltimore City officials to deliver a proposal to legislators by March 1.

If they cannot agree by that date -- roughly the time he begins developing his 1997 budget request -- Mr. Rawlings said he intends to ask fellow legislators to withhold $14.6 million from Baltimore's 1997 school appropriation.

The proposed city share of state school aid for next year is $424 million.

He outlined his request to Dr. Grasmick in a Jan. 30 letter, with copies sent to key leaders in the House and his committee. She sent a copy to Baltimore leaders to advise them of the requirement it places on her -- and, by extension, on them.

When questioned Tuesday about the rumored threat, Mr.

Rawlings told reporters he had no plan "at this time" to prepare a bill that would withhold money next year.

Yesterday, after city school officials released copies of the letter, Mr. Rawlings said, "I hope it doesn't come to that. I'm not looking forward to doing that."

The Baltimore Democrat called his proposed action a "disincentive" to impress on city officials his and other legislators' waning faith in the current leadership.

In his letter, Mr. Rawlings is seeking "drastic corrective change" to begin on July 1, the beginning of the state's new fiscal year.

Without specifying what form it should take, he calls for a partnership between the state and the city.

Furious city and school officials yesterday called on the city delegate to leave future school aid out of the larger fight over the proposed reorganization of school management -- and to recognize progress they have made at improving school management.

"I don't view it as a positive development at all," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday. "As much as I respect Delegate Rawlings and the work he does, I strongly disagree with this approach to our public school issues. Withholding $14.6 million is not only bad policy but would cause a slow strangulation of the school system. It's just one more diversion from our ability to get our house in order."

For months, Mr. Schmoke has been negotiating privately with state officials to settle cross-filed school-finance lawsuits, which allege that Maryland underfunds Baltimore schools and Baltimore mismanages its share of state money.

The negotiators' most recent proposal would eliminate the city school board and superintendent. It would establish a school government run by three executive managers and a governing board jointly appointed by the mayor and state officials.

Mr. Rawlings has not been part of the negotiations and is among many elected officials, community groups and others from Baltimore who wish to influence their outcome.

"It simply is not productive to make the kind of threat that's being made in that letter," Mr. Schmoke said. "It gets people focused on what do we do to recover that money, rather than what are we going to do that's best for the children, best to improve the school system."

Yesterday, school board president Phillip H. Farfel leveled a personal attack, calling Mr. Rawlings a "hypocrite."

A day before the letter became public, Mr. Rawlings and Sen. Clarence Blount had asked Gov. Parris N. Glendening to spend $10.6 million next year -- mostly in Baltimore -- to overhaul underachieving schools.

Mr. Rawlings also has filed a bill asking legislators to cut from Baltimore's current budget $5.9 million they withheld to prompt changes at school headquarters. They designated the money to be withheld from administrative salaries and benefits, but school officials say this does not prevent students from being deprived.

"It is not fair to be holding back money that belongs to the children of Baltimore," Mr. Farfel said yesterday. "If they want us to reorder how their money is spent, that's one thing. But it's entirely different to take away their money: It's not right."

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