Judge seen backing city on school aid

Board asking millions more in state money to make reforms

Ruling likely next week

State constitution requires funding, Kaplan tells lawyers

June 27, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore judge expressed support yesterday for the city's position that it should get more state school aid, but he likely will not rule until next week on the school board's petition for millions more for its reform efforts.

During a three-hour hearing, Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan repeated an argument advanced by lawyers for the city school system that the state budget includes money for many discretionary items, such as $6 million for private school textbooks, but shortchanges city schools, which have a right under the state constitution to adequate funding.

"It just seems to me that constitutionally mandated funding comes before discretionary funding," said Kaplan, who had been pushing for a speedy resolution of the dispute.

"You're $16 million short of what everybody agreed was necessary" to fund the reform plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Kaplan told lawyers for the state at another point. "I think we have to deal with that."

City negotiators had been seeking $49.7 million for a plan to send failing students to summer school, expand preschool programs and boost teacher salaries. The state's final offer, made last week, was for $33 million.

The state said it would fund the full $49.7 million a year from now, but city lawyers indicated in court yesterday that they wanted $100 million for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2001.

Yesterday's hearing followed a breakdown in negotiations between the city and the state over funding of the latest city school plan to improve student achievement.

The money the city is seeking is in addition to $254 million in new state aid over five years that was part of a 1996 settlement of a lawsuit over school funding brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. All told, the city will receive from the state $563.8 million in operating funds and $46.8 million in construction money for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

As part of the 1996 settlement, which Kaplan helped craft, the city agreed in exchange for the additional money to give up its control over the schools, creating a new management structure overseen by a city-state partnership.

Under the settlement, the newly created Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore City can seek greater funding from the state by providing a detailed plan on why the money is needed and how it would be spent. The state will use "best efforts" to satisfy such requests, subject to the availability of money, according to the settlement.

If the school board and the state do not agree on the amount of increased funding, the agreement allows the board to petition the Circuit Court for a review, and permits either side to appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals.

A spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said after yesterday's hearing that there was still an opportunity for the two sides to reach an agreement over additional funding for the next two fiscal years before Kaplan renders his decision, but said that an agreement would be difficult to reach.

"There's still a window open, but it's very hard to get through that window," Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said. As for the suggestion by lawyers for the city school board that it receive $100 million a year from now, Morrill said there was "no way" the state could fund that request.

During yesterday's hearing, an attorney for the state, Maureen Dove, introduced into evidence a letter Glendening wrote Friday to two influential Baltimore legislators detailing the increases in state school aid to the city made over the past seven years.

"Together we have increased per-student funding in the city an incredible 66 percent - a `bottom line' I am sure you appreciate," Glendening wrote to state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and state Del. Howard P. Rawlings.

The governor's letter also noted recent reports of "fiscal impropriety" and the school board's failure to reduce expenses by such measures as closing underused schools as reasons the state was reluctant to commit even more money.

Glendening's letter was in response to a letter sent to him that same day from the two legislators. Hoffman and Rawlings, who were trying to broker an agreement between the two sides, had urged Glendening to continue negotiating, saying they were "almost there with a proposal that is affordable for the state and addresses the serious educational concerns of Baltimore City's youth."

During yesterday's court hearing, lawyers for the city school board said that Maryland was running record budget surpluses and argued that a significant infusion of new money was needed for the city to move toward the additional $250 million a year needed to adequately educate its large number of at-risk students.

"It has to be a substantial amount ... if we're going to achieve adequacy in the lifetime of anyone in this courtroom," attorney Wilbur D. Preston said.

Dove, the attorney for the state, agreed "great strides" have been made toward improving city schools and said the only disagreement between the sides was how much additional money was reasonable.

"The state can't be accused of not putting resources into Baltimore City schools," she said.

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