General Assembly's top priority City schools: Legislators should resist avarice of county executives

March 24, 1997

LEGISLATORS IN ANNAPOLIS are entering the home stretch on the budget, with a March 31 deadline just a week away. By far the most important item is a total overhaul of Baltimore City's failing school system and a five-year plan to pump new life into these classrooms. Sadly, that proposal is also the most controversial.

Executives from Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties have been especially assertive in opposing this plan -- unless they get a major infusion of funds, too. In fact, they want more state money than the city -- $340 million over five years versus the city's $254 million. House and Senate leaders, and the governor, insist that is just plain greedy.

They are right. Not enough stress is being placed on the city schools' dire straits and the long-term burden this places on state taxpayers -- or the harm these failing schools do to state economic development efforts. A major revamping of these schools and an infusion of state aid could turn the situation around.

A $340 million aid package for the counties is another matter. It can't happen as long as lawmakers also insist on a big reduction in the state income tax. Some politicians want it all: The cheers of voters for lowering taxes and a huge chunk of state funds for local schools. One or the other must be scaled down.

We still believe that a sensible reduction in the income-tax rate would help improve Maryland's business climate. But lawmakers have turned the original tax-cut bill into a costly re-election vehicle that does little for economic development. None of the proposals we have seen comes close to balancing the budget in future years: The most recent version leaves a budget hole of $293 million in 2001; the county executives' expanded school aid plan would push that deficit to $367 million.

It is time to set priorities straight. Resuscitating Baltimore City's comatose school system should be No. 1. The avarice of county officials ought to be resisted. A $40 million add-on for the counties, backed by the governor and legislative leaders, is all Maryland can afford -- unless lawmakers are willing to reduce the scope of their multi-year tax cut.

Ignoring the plight of Baltimore's school children would be costly. One suburban leader, Del. John A. Hurson of Montgomery County, put it in proper perspective when he said lawmakers have "got to look at the bigger picture. . . . If we lose another generation of kids in Baltimore, we'll all end up paying."

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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