ACLU aims to get Md. funds for city schools

Group puts pressure on governor, Assembly

March 12, 2001|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The American Civil Liberties Union has stepped up pressure on Maryland's governor and state legislature, saying it will consider further legal action if funding for Baltimore schools is not increased soon.

In a letter last month to the governor and legislative leaders, the ACLU says a Baltimore Circuit Court ruling in the summer requires the state to give as much as $2,600 more per student each year to fund city public schools.

That ruling found that the state had failed to make the legally required "best efforts" to "provide even a reasonable down payment" on an adequate education for city students. The state appealed the case but withdrew its appeal a few days before it was to be heard by the Court of Appeals in January. The governor has said he does not believe the court can order the legislature to spend money.

But the ACLU notes that in education funding cases in New Jersey and West Virginia, courts have ordered governments to provide equitable funding for public school students.

Susan Goering, the Maryland ACLU executive director, says the governor has a constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education to the state's children. That is a much greater obligation, she said, than the need to provide money for roads or other budget requests.

"There needs to be some action that acknowledges the significance of this court order -- by the legislature, the Thornton Commission or the governor or all of them," she said.

If there is no action by the middle of next month, "further court action may be appropriate," the ACLU said in its letter.

The commission is studying school financing with a goal of persuading the General Assembly to make major changes in the way the state provides aid to local school systems. It's headed by Alvin Thornton, former head of Prince George's County's school board, and includes legislators, educators and elected officials.

The ACLU and Baltimore officials first filed a lawsuit in 1994 and 1995 against the state about funding for city schools. A consent decree in 1997 gave the state partial control of the city schools in exchange for $254 million more in state money. The consent decree also required the governor to make his best effort to provide additional revenues this school year. The school board sued the governor in June claiming he failed to do so and obtained the opinion by Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan.

Last month, the two sides came to an agreement without the ACLU, which is a party to the lawsuit. The city agreed not to take further legal action this year if the governor provided $55 million in additional state money for next school year.

The ACLU says the school system needs more help next year. The governor's office disagrees. "The state has made an extraordinary commitment to the Baltimore city schools. The funding is 50 percent above state contributions to any other jurisdiction in Maryland," said Michelle Byrnie, spokeswoman for the governor.

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