Weaker school funding bill OK'd House panel approves 'maintenance of effort' legislation after change

March 08, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

A House committee has substantially weakened a proposal by county governments aimed at giving them greater control over how much money is spent each year on public schools.

By a 21-1 vote, the House Ways & Means Committee approved legislation reforming the state's "maintenance of effort" law that requires counties to spend as much per pupil as they did the year before.

But the rewritten bill they approved strips a key change sought by county governments -- the authority for counties with growing school populations to lower per-pupil expenditures for new students by 40 percent. Instead, it gives counties the right to obtain a one-year waiver of the minimum school funding requirement from the state Board of Education.

"We're disappointed," said David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. "There was not a full addressing of the accountability issue."

Committee members said they were sympathetic to local governments' desire to hold school boards more accountable, but were concerned that weakening the law would allow counties to substitute state tax dollars for local tax revenue.

Maintenance of effort was created 11 years ago to make sure counties used increasing amounts of state aid for schools rather than as a means to shift dollars into other services or to lower taxes.

Legislators also likely were swayed by the arguments of teachers, parents and some school boards that counties would wind up spending less on schools -- as much as $400 million less over the next five years.

"A lot of members heard from a lot of parents and teachers who were worried about a reduction," said Del. James C. Rosapepe, a Prince George's County Democrat. "The bill still accomplishes a lot of what the counties were asking for."

Legislators also were mindful of the experience of Wicomico County. The Eastern Shore county failed to meet its maintenance of effort requirement last year and had to forfeit $800,000 in state aid.

Under the amended bill, the county might have won an exemption from the state board, but only after a review of the county's financial posture and a public hearing.

"There are circumstances in which county government needs relief," said Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. "We think this is a good bill now. It really addresses the immediate concerns that needed to be addressed."

But Mr. Bliden said the legislation still fails to adequately address the disincentive counties face against increasing school budgets above the maintenance of effort level. Giving extra now means counties have to face even higher standards when maintenance of effort is calculated the next year, he pointed out.

More important, he said, the legislation won't resolve one of the biggest complaints of county government -- their inability to force school boards to justify their spending because an increase in spending is always guaranteed.

The issue had split Maryland's educational community. The original bill represented a compromise reached by the state school board, state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, county officials and organizations representing local school boards and school superintendents.

It was opposed by teachers, parent-teacher organizations, and some dissenting school boards.

The legislation now goes to the full House of Delegates for approval. Similar legislation is pending in two Senate committees.

Pub Date: 3/08/96

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