Schools funding panel criticized

Thornton proposal falls short, city says

November 20, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Officials from Maryland's wealthiest and poorest jurisdictions said last night that their school systems would be shortchanged by a proposal to overhaul the state's education-financing systems and add $1.1 billion to public schools.

But school officials and parent and teacher groups from much of the rest of the state said they support a plan by the group known as the Thornton Commission to significantly step up education spending during the next five years.

The mixed opinions evident during the hearing in Annapolis on the commission's preliminary report indicated that regional divisions might be a stumbling block -- foreshadowing debate that is expected during next year's General Assembly session.

The Thornton Commission passed its preliminary recommendations by only one vote, and the representatives from Montgomery County -- Maryland's most populous and wealthiest -- voted against them.

Montgomery officials said they believe their 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.

"We are deeply concerned that many of the [commission's recommendations] mask the real needs of our county," said Nancy J. King, president of Montgomery's school board. "If the state is going to address the needs of these children, some meaningful funding must be targeted for these programs regardless of where they reside."

Also asking for more money last night were Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and the city schools' chief executive officer, Carmen V. Russo, who said her system needs more state aid.

Although the city school system would receive about a $52 million increase next year under the commission's plans, Russo said schools with high concentrations of poverty should receive more. She also said that plans to phase in the $1.1 billion statewide increase would penalize the city and other systems that are due to receive large amounts of extra money.

"This places the Baltimore City reform plan in jeopardy," Russo said.

The Thornton Commission -- appointed by the governor two years ago and named for its chairman, Alvin Thornton, a former Prince George's school board chairman -- aims to reduce inequities among systems and ensure that all have the money to meet state achievement standards.

Under the commission's preliminary recommendations, 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 required under state law to pay for growing student enrollment, and the commission seeks to add $130 million.

Over 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.

School officials, teachers and parents from many of the state's other counties pledged support for the commission's work and said they would fight to ensure the governor and General Assembly include the extra money for schools.

"Thank you for bringing attention to the gross underfunding of education," said Judy Mickens-Murray, president of the PTA Council of Prince George's County. "We support full funding of your recommendations."

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