School funding plan is opposed

ACLU-led coalition calls state-Baltimore agreement inadequate

January 26, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

A $55 million out-of-court settlement reached by the city and state in a lawsuit over Baltimore school funding is being opposed by a coalition of groups led by the ACLU that wants a legal ruling on whether the funding is adequate.

Two weeks after announcing an agreement on state aid to the Baltimore school system, city and state officials are preparing to ask the state Court of Appeals to put the case on hold. The court planned a hearing next month.

But the coalition intends to try to block that move, saying a judge should rule on whether the state is providing enough resources to ensure an adequate education.

"We think their agreed-upon amount is far too low to warrant delaying the case," said Bebe Verdery, education director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "It's very important that this legal case preserve - or establish - a constitutional right [to adequate funding] for students for the long term."

The $55 million settlement represents a $22 million increase over current funding, but $46 million less than the city had sought for next fiscal year.

"I just think we've done the best we could," Carmen V. Russo, city schools chief, said yesterday. "Certainly [the ACLU and others] are free to take another position."

Several groups with complaints about the equity of state education funding are supporting the ACLU. They are the NAACP; Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice; League of Women Voters; Maryland Congress of Parents and Teachers, and the Association of University Women of Maryland.

The city, seeking additional education funding for the current fiscal year, took the state to court in June.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan found that the state had failed to make the "best efforts to provide even a reasonable down payment" on an adequate education for city students, as required under 1997 legislation that created a landmark city-state partnership marked by $254 million in new state aid.

Kaplan estimated the city would need an additional $2,000 to $2,600 per pupil.

The state appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, but the city asked that the case be heard more quickly by the Court of Appeals.

In December, Russo and other school and political leaders proposed to the governor the $55 million settlement.

The proposal said that, pending receipt of the funds by July 1, the school board "will urge all parties to the litigation to stay or suspend enforcement" of Kaplan's ruling.

The ACLU's Verdery said she understands the "fiscal realities" facing the school system, but that the larger question is long-term funding adequacy. She said the $55 million isn't enough to continue school reform efforts begun four years ago. The state had already agreed, before the most recent round of legal wrangling, to give the city $49.7 million for the coming fiscal year, she said.

"This agreement only gives them $5.3 million over that," Verdery said.

Michael Morrill, spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said yesterday that the city and state will jointly request, possibly as early as today, that the case be suspended, because both sides are "satisfied" - at least for now.

Assistant Attorney General Maureen M. Dove said the proposed stay would likely extend at least until Oct. 1, when a state task force studying school funding equity is expected to issue recommendations.

But the stay could extend through next year's General Assembly session, she said.

Sun staff writers Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

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