$51 million school plan wins backing Grasmick's formula for increased state aid widely supported

'There's unity in the state'

Additional funding from revenue surplus allays past divisions

December 14, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The issue of state aid to local school systems -- which once threatened to embroil the 1998 General Assembly session -- could be on the verge of peaceful resolution thanks to the soothing influence of $51 million in taxpayers' money.

Leading Maryland political figures say a funding formula devised by state school Superintendent Nancy Grasmick has won such broad support that it will heal a serious breach between the Baltimore area and the Washington suburbs.

Officials from the two regions split bitterly earlier this year over a plan to provide $254 million over five years to Baltimore schools as part of a restructuring plan. After the legislature narrowly rejected an effort to tie the Baltimore plan to a statewide increase in education aid, the 1997 session ended with the Montgomery and Prince George's county executives announcing an alliance to battle for funding equity for all the poor children of Maryland.

Now, a month before the legislature begins its annual 90-day session Jan. 14, it appears the war may be won without a shot being fired.

The Grasmick plan has already won the support of the chief executives of Maryland's seven largest jurisdictions, the state's schools superintendents and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. It has also been endorsed by a task force jointly named by Taylor and Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Even Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey is saying nice things about the proposal.

"There's unity in the state of Maryland," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who split with fellow Democrat Duncan over the Baltimore school aid bill, said he and his colleagues learned from the contention of this year's session.

"In the end, it's better if we stick together as one state," Ruppersberger said.

Democratic Del. Kumar P. Barve, chairman of the Montgomery County House delegation, said there's a two-word explanation for this burgeoning goodwill: "budget surplus." With revenues outstripping estimates by at least $310 million, there's hardly a politician in the state who can't see the virtue of spending a significant part of that on schools.

Politically, the biggest beneficiary is likely to be Glendening. Instead of having to answer questions on the 1998 campaign trail about regional division and perceived funding inequities, he will be able to claim credit for implementing a plan that even his political rivals are praising.

Gubernatorial candidates

Among the county executives who have endorsed the plan are two 1998 gubernatorial candidates, Harford Democrat Eileen M.

Rehrmann and Howard Republican Charles I. Ecker.

And Sauerbrey says: "From what I read of the formula, it appears to be something based on criteria of need that are measurable and not a political football."

Glendening has not explicitly backed the Grasmick plan, but he has sent strong signals that he will incorporate its essential elements into his program.

In an interview last week, he said he expects to propose "a very exciting program that will not be dissimilar" to Grasmick's.

The governor declined to get into specifics about spending while his fiscal 1999 budget is being prepared, but he indicated that it will include at least as much as Grasmick has proposed.

In its current budget, the state is spending about $2.3 billion on aid to local primary and secondary schools.

Senate leader a skeptic

If the governor does include the roughly $51 million the Grasmick plan would add to the current formula, that will leave Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller as the only high-level Grinch refusing to join the Christmas party.

The Prince George's Democrat said last week that he is still concerned that the state is spending heavily on aid to localities and neglecting statewide needs.

But supporters of the Grasmick proposal are counting on influential Democratic senators to help bring Miller around.

In the end, Miller may find a more tempting target in the governor's school construction spending plans -- projected last week by state budget secretary Frederick W. Puddester to be "in the neighborhood" of $200 million. That amount, up from about $150 million in the current budget, is regarded as overly generous by House leaders.

Policy and politics

Grasmick's "Targeted Improvement Program" is an artful blend of policy and politics. Because it is based on a formula, the plan avoids the appearance of the governor doling out goodies to friendly jurisdictions, but it is also carefully structured to make sure there's something in it for everyone.

Under one part of the formula, which is based on the number of children in the subsidized school lunch program, the big winners would be Baltimore ($5.7 million), Baltimore County ($7.1 million) and Prince George's County ($4.9 million).

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