Schools reopen suit for funding

City board sues state to increase aid by $49 million

June 13, 2000|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Saying the governor has reneged on a promise to provide adequate funding for some of Maryland's poorest schoolchildren, the city school board is taking the state to court.

School officials filed an 80-page petition in Baltimore Circuit Court after two months of settlement negotiations before Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan broke down. The judge plans to begin hearings June 26.

The school board is asking for at least $49 million more annually, far more than the roughly $25 million that had been offered for next year.

"There is no doubt that the children of Baltimore are going to require additional funding for us to provide an adequate education," Sam Stringfield, a school board member and the Johns Hopkins University education researcher, said yesterday.

A spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening expressed disappointment.

"We stand by the record of state support for the city schools," spokesman Mike Morrill said.

The school board's action reopens an old case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that challenged the way the state funded city schools. In 1996, the case was settled with a landmark partnership in which the city and state agreed to begin a major reform of the city schools.

The city gave the state some control over its schools in return for $254 million in additional aid that would be handed out over five years. But the state promised in the settlement to consider new requests for money this year.

The school board and the ACLU are now arguing that the state has failed to live up to its legal obligation to make a "good faith" effort to fund schools.

"We have tried to work things out so we can continue the partnership, but obviously the city has chosen a different course," said Morrill.

The state's per-pupil funding for city schools, including operating and capital project spending, has increased from $3,986 before the partnership began to $6,488 for the upcoming school year, Morrill said.

The legal action coincides with a Maryland task force review on state allocations among its 24 school systems. Observers say the school board's action could spark further lawsuits from other less-well-off systems.

The petition was filed quietly, just before the close of business Friday - the same day the school board was announcing its decision to hire Florida educator Carmen Russo as the next chief executive officer. Yesterday, the ACLU announced the legal action and the school board referred comment to Stringfield.

State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick declined comment yesterday, because neither she nor the state department of education's lawyers had seen the legal filings.

Mayor Martin O'Malley was out of town yesterday and unavailable for comment, a spokesman said.

A consultant's report in January suggested that city school leaders need another $260 million annually to bring the school system up to par, but the city school board said it was asking for a modest $49 million increase. The first request was made last fall, and when the governor did not put the money in the budget this year,the board voiced its disappointment publicly on several occasions.

In April the school board threatened court action and hired an outside attorney, Wilbur D. Preston Jr, a partner with Whiteford, Taylor and Preston, to represent the board in its negotiations with the governor.

The city appeared to strengthen its case for more money when it announced in May the first significant results of the $254 million reform effort - a sharp rise in math and reading test scores for elementary schools.

But then came recent revelations that the district had failed to manage its finances properly by handing out two no-bid contracts that were not approved by the school board. The system's chief financial officer resigned and its business officer was put on a one month suspension, pending the outcome of an investigation.

Several observers, including Bonnie Copeland, a strong candidate for the chief executive position and a former school board member, said they believed it would be difficult for the system to go to court seeking more money in the wake of the financial management problems.

City legislators also weighed in. "I had talked to the school board and said as long as you are in serious negotiations I don't think that you can go to court," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who has fought for more funding for city schools.

But sources involved in the negotiations said Kaplan, who had helped broker the original settlement in 1996, was not satisfied with the the negotiations and signaled to both sides that he would hold hearings June 26 if the city schools filed a petition. That encouraged city schools' action, asking that the case be reopened.

"It was kind of the judge's idea" to bring the issue to a head, said Hoffman. "He was the player in creating the first settlement and he was pushing the envelope in this one."

Kaplan was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Stringfield held out hope for a settlement.

"It remains the hope of the board that this is settled without having to go to court. We are appreciative of the fact that the governor has come part way," said Stringfield, indicating that Glendening had been willing during recent weeks to offer some additional money in the future.

Reopening the case is also likely to give county school systems a boost in their efforts to get more money from the state as well.

"The time has passed for children at risk for educational failure, anywhere in the state, to have to go hat in hand to a state that has over a billion dollars in surplus in order to get its basic educational needs met," said Susan Goering, executive director of the Maryland ACLU.

Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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