Counties looking to share in city schools settlement They say case extends far beyond Baltimore

December 12, 1996|By Eric Siegel and Thomas W. Waldron | Eric Siegel and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

While two Maryland counties are trying to block an agreement that would send millions of dollars in new state aid to Baltimore's schools, elected officials from many of the state's other jurisdictions are withholding judgment, waiting to see what might be in the deal for them.

"I don't think you'll see anything come out of the legislature unless we're included," said James G. Horn, superintendent of schools in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore, which ranks with Baltimore as one of the state's poorest localities.

"When the Baltimore case gets to the legislature, it's going to be far more than just Baltimore involved," he said.

As with all high-expense items considered by the General Assembly, the cost of the proposal in dollars -- in this case $254 million over five years for Baltimore schools -- doesn't reflect the real cost of securing passage.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who supports the court settlement, said he worries about selling the idea to the legislative rank and file.

"What I'm going to hear from my members is: 'Where is my share?' " said Taylor, a Democrat.

"There's a natural tendency among legislators to make sure they're protecting their own back yard," said Del. Donald C. Fry, a Harford County Democrat.

It is not yet clear what legislative benefits the state's jurisdictions will want as their price for supporting the Baltimore school settlement, but some possible sweeteners have emerged.

Besides the money for Baltimore, for example, Gov. Parris N. Glendening plans to spread an additional $47 million in school aid among six of the state's poorer counties over five years, aides to the governor said.

Under the governor's tentative budget allocation, for example, Somerset County would receive about $961,000 in additional school aid over the five years. The governor's proposal also would send more money to Prince George's County, home to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, and Allegany County, home to Taylor.

The governor is also considering increasing the state's share of the cost of local school construction projects, which would appeal to counties struggling to cope with growth in the school-age population.

State Budget Secretary Frederick W. Puddester declined to discuss details.

Assembly OK required

On Monday, lawyers for Montgomery County urged Maryland's highest court to void the court settlement calling for a boost in state aid to Baltimore. The settlement, in the form of a consent decree, is contingent on General Assembly approval of the additional funding.

Montgomery argued that it should have been allowed to participate in the settlement talks because its taxpayers would be affected by the agreement. Montgomery was joined by Frederick County in its appeal of a Baltimore Circuit Court decision to exclude the suburban Washington jurisdiction from a lawsuit because city schools were inadequately funded.

Montgomery asked for a speedy decision, but it is unclear when the Court of Appeals will issue a ruling. Regardless of the ruling, administration officials say, the governor plans to ask the legislature for the additional funds for Baltimore that are needed to make the agreement work.

The agreement, reached late last month, brought to an end a long-running dispute over the funding and management of Baltimore's public schools and settled three lawsuits, two charging that the state had failed to provide enough money for city schools and one alleging that the city had failed to properly educate disabled students.

In exchange for $230 million in additional money for classrooms and $24 million more in construction funds, the city agreed to a greatly expanded state role in managing its school system.

Glendening has taken several opportunities in recent days to reassure officials in other counties that the state will not have to cut their aid to pay for the Baltimore school settlement.

'I am concerned'

Although many leaders in those counties do not endorse the efforts of Montgomery and Frederick counties to block the agreement, some agree with those counties that funding decisions should be made in the legislature, not in court consent decrees. Others share those counties' underlying concern about the source of the funds, particularly at a time when the legislature is contemplating a major cut in the state income tax rate.

"I am concerned about where the money's coming from," said Allegany County Commissioner Arthur T. Bond. "If it doesn't come from Allegany's school system, is it going to come from our community college? Is it going to come from our roads?"

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said, "I'm concerned about the amount of money and whether it's going to do any good. Mostly, I'm concerned about where it's going to come from."

Margaret R. Myers, president of the Caroline County commissioners, said she does not begrudge Baltimore its additional money, even though her county is last in the state in spending per student.

"I don't envy the city, with its large number of students and tremendous problems," said Myers, whose county has about 5,500 students, about 5 percent the enrollment in Baltimore.

But she said she wanted to know what the implications were for smaller, poorer counties like hers.

"We're going to look and see what does it mean for us," she said.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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