Bills seek flexibility in funding of schools Counties could spend less on education

February 18, 1996|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Why would a school board member who has always appealed for more money for education testify for a bill that would mean less?

Because she fears the alternative could be much more harmful, says Carolyn Scott, Carroll County school board member.

As president of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE), Ms. Scott testified earlier this winter in favor of a bill that reduces the counties' responsibilities for education.

"There's no point in fighting over the pie when the plate is empty," Ms. Scott said.

The alternative, the one that the Maryland Association of Counties wanted in the first place, could be line-item control over school board budgets, which usually make up more than half a county budget.

The counties got House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. to sponsor bills this year that would give them such control.

School boards were poised to launch a campaign against those bills, claiming they would undermine the responsibility of an elected or appointed school board. So before legislative hearings began, Mr. Taylor asked the two associations -- counties and school boards -- to find the middle ground.

Ms. Scott was among those working out the compromise, and earlier this month she testified in favor of the resulting bill. She was resigned to it, she said.

If the current bill doesn't lessen the counties' burdens, Ms. Scott said, "They will be back for a line-item veto."

The compromise is that instead of gaining line-item control, lTC counties get a break on the "maintenance of effort law," enacted 11 years ago.

Reduced obligations

The law currently requires counties to provide at least as much funding per student as they did in the previous year.

The Senate version allows counties to provide only 60 percent of the per-pupil formula for any new students. The House version uses a different formula to reduce the obligation.

Ms. Scott's fellow Carroll County school board members -- as well as others across the state -- oppose any reduction of maintenance of effort.

"It is a compromise bill, but they expect us to compromise a lot," said Ann M. Ballard, another Carroll school board member. "We have to make education our top priority. People say it is, but they don't think the bill makes school boards do all the compromising."

Wednesday, the other four members of the Carroll County school board voted to send letters opposing those bills.

Ms. Scott, having already testified for the bills, was the only Carroll board member to vote not to send the letters.

"I, for one, am opposed to both of those bills," board member C. Scott Stone said of the House and Senate versions of the legislation. "They will in no way be to the advantage of Carroll County schools."

Mr. Stone said that there might be a way to compromise, but that county and school board leaders need to start over to "hammer out a good bill."

Questions remain

Right now, there are still a lot of "ifs" surrounding the issue for Carroll County. If one of the current versions of the bill becomes law, if it takes effect this summer, and if the County Commissioners take advantage of it, Carroll could lose another $1.1 million from its 1996-1997 budget.

That budget already has been among the most difficult for the school board to trim. The $140 million budget they adopted Wednesday, which will go on to the commissioners for final approval, relies on employees giving back some or all of their raises at the bargaining table later this winter.

For years, most counties exceeded the maintenance of effort, but in the past few years, with tax revenues that are not growing as quickly as the schools in some cases, local governments are having trouble keeping up that obligation.

In Carroll, for example, the commissioners have said that in order maintain their effort to the schools, they will have to cut back other county agencies.

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