Order to boost city school funds meets resistance

State, city, system all contend they can't comply with ruling

September 22, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore judge's ruling that sought to make available millions of dollars in extra funds for city schools this year is meeting resistance from all quarters: the state, the city and the school system itself.

All three entities, which are involved in a decade-old lawsuit over funding of city schools, have told Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan that they cannot comply with his order - to the dismay of education advocates who had argued that the system's austerity plan to recover from a financial crisis was a setback to the quality of education.

Kaplan sided with the advocates last month, ruling that the system's plan to reduce a $58 million deficit and build a $20 million rainy day fund in the next two years had caused harmful cuts to classroom programs.

The judge ordered the system to spend between $30 million and $45 million more this academic year on staffing, summer school and other programs, either by obtaining increased city and state funding or shifting money designated for other purposes in the system's $964 million operating budget.

In the last several days, however, lawyers for the state, city and school system gave Kaplan reasons why they have not complied with his order. The judge had required each party to submit reports about what additional funds were available and how they could be spent.

Deep divisions

The responses submitted to Kaplan reveal deep divisions between the city and state. City and school officials say their hands are tied unless the state provides more funding. But the state says it has adequately funded the schools, and blames the schools' problems on financial mismanagement.

The state sent a one-paragraph letter to the judge Friday, declining to submit a report and reminding Kaplan that it plans to appeal his ruling.

The city's report submitted yesterday did not provide solutions to the funding problem, saying only that it had scheduled a meeting to discuss the matter this week that it hoped state officials would attend.

The city also listed ways in which it has helped the system, including coordinating a volunteer campaign to repair school buildings and helping school officials manage transportation more efficiently.

System's woes

In an eight-page report filed Monday, the school system also provided no solutions. The system said it could not restore programs that were cut or employees who were laid off, unless the state provided additional funds.

The system said it would comply with Kaplan's order to slow down the creation of a rainy day fund. But the report did not mention the possibility of diverting operating funds to restore staff and programs, saying only that the system would be placed in a precarious financial position if forced to spend beyond its means as it recovers from the deficit.

The system attached to its report a wish list, detailing ways in which more spending could benefit students.

Items on the list included $5 million to provide academic intervention services to 15,000 additional elementary and middle school pupils; $35 million to reduce class sizes to their levels two years ago; and between $15 million and $40 million to hire academic coaches to support classroom teachers.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which represents students' interests in the court case, said it was unhappy that the judge's order has not been followed.

"We're disappointed that four weeks after the court entered its order, little if anything has been done to address the serious and undisputed needs of the schoolchildren of Baltimore City," said Louis Bograd, an attorney for the ACLU.

Letter from Ehrlich

Letters exchanged this month by the school board and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. also illustrate fundamental disagreements.

Patricia Welch, the board chairman, wrote to Ehrlich asking for a meeting to discuss obtaining extra funds, pointing out that the state ended the last fiscal year with a $310 million surplus.

Ehrlich wrote back to say that state funding to city schools is projected to increase by 9 percent this year and to decline Welch's request for a meeting.

The letter continued: "Without delving into history, attached is a list of approximated 40 managerial - and thus financial - problems presently within your system. ... My respectful, governmental suggestion would be that you conference with the officials of the Maryland State Department of Education to inform them ... how you intend to eliminate each of these apparent detriments to educational progress."

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