Judge appears to back city on state aid to schools

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

A Baltimore judge expressed obvious 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 to get 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.

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