Schools financing formula decided

Panel recommends increasing state aid by $1.1 billion a year

November 02, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The task force charged with overhauling Maryland's system of school financing voted for a new spending formula yesterday that would increase state aid to public schools by $1.1 billion a year.

But recognizing the state's growing budget woes, the group known as the Thornton Commission called for the stepped-up education spending to be phased in over five years, with full funding coming in fiscal 2007.

As the formula was approved, regional divisions that had remained below the surface during most of the task force's two years of work leapt out into the open - foreshadowing some of the political fighting that is likely to occur during the next General Assembly session.

The formula passed by one vote, and every representative from Montgomery County - Maryland's most populous jurisdiction - voted against it. They believe the county would not get as much aid as it deserves under a provision in the formula for instruction of immigrant children who don't speak English.

"I think it's going to be an issue," said Del. Paul H. Carlson, a Montgomery Democrat and task force member. "I think something needs to be worked out."

But commission Chairman Alvin Thornton said he believes the regional differences can be easily resolved. "I don't think the divisions are that deep," said Thornton, a former Prince George's County school board chairman. "I don't think Montgomery County is going to get in the way of a plan that will help all school systems."

Under the plan, Maryland's contribution to local systems would be set at $5,969 per student, and the state would then give systems extra money for special education students, those who don't speak English as a first language and children who live in poverty.

All systems would receive money to add full-day kindergarten to all elementary schools, and the state would pay $1,000 per special education student who needs extra busing services. The changes would increase the state's share of total education spending from 42 percent to about 49 percent.

The $2.9 billion being spent by the state on public schools this year would increase by about $264 million next year. About $133 million is already required under state law to pay for growing student enrollment, and the Thornton Commission's recommendations would add another $130 million.

In five years, annual state spending would increase by $1.8 billion. About $700 million of that increase is already required, and the other $1.1 billion would come from the task force's new formula. The plan also would expect local jurisdictions to spend about $693 million more on public schools annually within five years.

"I think it's a good compromise," said Wicomico County Superintendent William T. Middleton, a member of the commission. "I think every school system should benefit from this, but the thing that still concerns me is the amount that local jurisdictions might have to put up for funding."

The panel has the twin goals of reducing inequities among systems and ensuring that all have enough money to meet state student achievement standards.

Two independent analyses of Maryland's school financing conducted for the panel found that about $2 billion should be added to the $6.7 billion being spent this year on education by the local, state and federal governments. Such an increase would probably permit school systems to reduce elementary class sizes, offer more summer school and expand preschool programs for poor children.

Though the commission recommended that the increased spending be phased in over five years, Maryland's budget problems might make it difficult to meet the Thornton Commission's recommendations.

"The governor would love to put more money into education," said Michael Morrill, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "But we will have to recognize the budget realities facing the state, and we'll know that better in December when we see the [revenue] numbers."

Local governments are facing the same pressures. "Every county's budget may not be as dire as the state budget ... , but every county is looking at freezes and dealing with [this year] as well as worrying about [next]," said Marilyn J. Praisner, a Montgomery County Council member.

Nevertheless, commission members said they believe Maryland can find ways to come up with the extra dollars. "It's all about priorities," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Thornton said the commission would look at possible sources of new revenue to pay for the recommendations at its next meeting in two weeks, including slot machines and tax increases.

The commission has scheduled a public hearing for Nov. 19 in Annapolis to gather reaction to its proposal. Its final report will go to the governor and General Assembly next month.

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