Ehrlich cuts $1 million grant to city schools

Busch hopes to get some funds restored, as he did last year

Administration notes other increases


February 16, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

For the second year in a row, Annapolis schools are stuck in budget limbo, hoping state lawmakers will restore an annual $1 million grant credited with helping the urban area's 12 schools improve test scores and reduce suspensions and expulsions.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did not include the state Challenge Grant in his proposed budget for the next fiscal year. Ehrlich also dropped the grant from his budget proposal last year, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who helped establish the grant, was able to restore $558,000.

Busch said he plans "to do everything I can" to secure funds again.

"I think it's unfortunate that the governor would cut this sort of program and resource out that's been so effective," Busch said.

The Challenge Grant, started in 2001 and set to expire in 2006, pays for accelerated learning programs, behavior intervention and staff development for these Anne Arundel County schools, many of which serve poor children.

Statewide, 68 schools received Challenge Grants, but only the Annapolis grant targets an entire feeder system.

State Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. said the state accelerated the phase-out of the Challenge Grant program because counties would receive $397 million more from the Thornton Plan, intended to address disparities between richer and poorer schools. Overall, Anne Arundel received a 6.5 percent increase in state funding, according to DiPaula.

"We're just consolidating and letting the boards of education decide where they're spending their money," he said.

But the additional Thornton funding will not compensate for what the grant provided, said county schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith. That's why restoring the grant is a priority for Smith, who has written letters advocating for the grant to Busch and state education chief Nancy S. Grasmick.

"It's been instrumental in our ability to move some schools that have had a very difficult history to a much stronger place academically," Smith said.

For example, 16 schools receiving Challenge Grants were recognized statewide for double-digit gains in Maryland School Assessment performance. Seven were Annapolis elementary schools. All six Title I schools in Annapolis - those with a significant population of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty - received the honor.

More than 80 percent of African-American third-graders at Eastport Elementary reached advanced or proficient levels on the reading component of the MSA - up from about 36 percent the previous year.

"It has proven to be a success. We need another year," Smith said.

Unlike the rest of the county, Annapolis schools draw a high proportion of children from the area's high concentration of government-subsidized housing. As a result, many students are poor and an increasing number have limited English skills, said Carrie W. Kapuco, who serves on the Challenge Grant's steering committee and has two daughters at Annapolis Elementary School.

"I believe this feeder system deserves extra resources," Kapuco said.

In the past, the money has been used to staff positions at all grade levels. Smith also used Challenge Grant funds to train teachers and to buy textbooks for the Open Court reading and Saxon Math programs within the feeder system.

The program allows the school district to develop skills in students "one child at a time," said Roy Skiles. Now director of elementary schools, he served as the area director when the grant was created.

"It's not a situation where you solve the problem, and you can walk away from it," Smith said.

Some people think restoring the funds would be difficult, given the need for support from many elected leaders.

"My best guess is it's going to be very hard for the speaker - and he is a strong advocate - to get us that amount again this year," said school board member Eugene Peterson.

In January, he suggested creating a separate school district for Annapolis schools and those that serve Fort Meade so they could address the schools' unique needs.

Mary Alice Gehrdes, a parent and steering committee member, agreed it could be an uphill battle.

However, Gehrdes has hopes that others recognize that programs such as the Challenge Grant could be a pilot for other areas.

"This is good for the whole state, to see if this will work," she said.

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