City seeks more state school aid

Officials want extra $363 million to support programs

`Money is not available'

Additional $2 billion needed in Md., panel's early studies say

September 06, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Emboldened by rising test scores, new leadership and studies showing that Maryland is grossly underfunding public education, the Baltimore school system has asked the governor for nearly $363 million in extra aid to support a range of programs next year.

The additional money would be used in part for continued academic reforms at the elementary level as well as dozens of new ones in middle and high schools. The request occurs several months before a state-appointed task force studying equity in education funding is expected to release a report calling for a sharp boost in aid.

City school officials are, in effect, trying to piggy-back on preliminary studies prepared for the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence, known as the Thornton Commission, which say the state needs to spend as much as $2 billion more on public education.

Carmen V. Russo, Baltimore's chief executive officer for schools, called the request yesterday for extra funding "in tandem" with those studies and said the programs detailed in it are "very much what our children need."

"We believe that the work that was done by the Thornton Commission actually lays the groundwork for this request," Russo said. "I think it forms the basis of a very good conversation" with the governor and state lawmakers.

A spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said his office had not reviewed the city's request, but warned that no major new spending is planned for next year's budget.

"The watchword right now for all of our budget preparations is prudence and caution," Mike Morrill said.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the school system might need every penny in its request, but that the state can't fully fund it.

"In terms of fiscal reality, that kind of money is not available in the state budget and won't be available until we address additional revenue sources," he said.

Other jurisdictions will also be looking for major boosts in education spending, Rawlings said, when the Thornton Commission's adequacy study is completed this year.

"The $300-plus million proposal for Baltimore City is going to be equivalent to $200-plus million for Prince George's County, about $100 million for Montgomery County and about $150 million for Baltimore County," he said. "And if you keep adding, that's up to about a billion dollars."

The Thornton Commission is expected to suggest several ways of raising additional state revenues to pay for increases in education aid.

More than half of the city school system's $860 million budget is funded by the state. In the name of reforming the troubled district, the city and state forged a landmark partnership in 1997 that was marked by $254 million in new state dollars.

But for three straight years, the school system has submitted a so-called "remedy" request to the governor for additional resources, saying what it gets isn't enough.

This year's request, outlined in a 140-page document submitted to the governor Friday, is more than three times the $101 million the system asked for last year -- $55 million of which it received.

The school system's chief operating officer, Mark Smolarz, said the city's share of extra funding recommended by the Thornton Commission could be from $100 million to $500 million.

"It's a big number," he said. "It's at least 10 percent more for us, at a minimum. We're hoping it's at least 50 percent."

Some of the new money would be used to continue initiatives begun in previous years.

Highlights of the request include:

126.2 million for elementary school reform. The school system wants to reduce class size to 22 pupils in grades four and five, provide full-day kindergarten and prekindergarten in all elementary buildings, expand gifted and talented programs and hire math and science "coaches" to help teachers.

$40.5 million for middle school reform. Officials want to create more K-8 schools, create themed schools around the arts and humanities as well as science, math and technology, reduce class size to 24 and create an "International Baccalaureate" program.

$37.1 million for high school reform. Educators hope to break up larger high schools into smaller communities, hire "coaches" for English and math teachers, equalize funding for all schools and create eighth-grade "transition" academies for pupils struggling to get to ninth grade. Officials also are requesting funds to create a technology-focused high school, Digital Harbor Technology High School, and to revamp the health-services career program at Dunbar.

$22.3 million for libraries. Officials want to bring school libraries up to state standards by buying books, purchasing computer software and hiring "information resource" specialists and teachers.

$14.7 million for school-to-work initiatives. The district wants to develop programs focusing on post-high school job opportunities, support job training efforts and provide technology education in elementary and middle schools.

$14.1 million for professional development. The school system wants to further boost teacher salaries, increase the number of fully credentialed teachers and train aspiring principals and assistant principals.

The Thornton Commission is holding public hearings in five locations around the state Monday. One will take place at City College, 3220 The Alameda, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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