Threat to city schools plan

Funds loss at issue in Montgomery Co.

General Assembly


In an effort to quash a bill that would cost their county millions in education funding, some Montgomery County lawmakers have threatened to withdraw support for a moratorium on the state's takeover of 11 Baltimore City schools - a move that could damage the chances for overriding Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s promised veto.

The legislation at the center of the maelstrom is a late-filed House of Delegates bill that would change the state's formula for distributing education dollars - now based, among other factors, on a county's taxable income as of Sept. 1. The bill would push back the date until Nov. 1, two weeks after the new federal deadline for income tax extensions.

But richer counties such as Montgomery and Baltimore County, which appear less wealthy in the September measurement than they are because more people there file taxes late, would lose state funding under the proposed new system.

Prince George's County stands to gain the most from the change while most other state jurisdictions, Baltimore City included, would pick up a little extra money. A Prince George's lawmaker is sponsoring the legislation.

Montgomery Democrat Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., who is part of a coalition of lawmakers from Montgomery and Baltimore counties prepared to fight the formula change, said yesterday that his delegation would do whatever it takes to block the legislation - even turning on the moratorium bill Baltimore delegates fought so hard to win last week.

"I think every issue is on the table," he said. "This issue is so critical to all 32 legislators from Montgomery County that we would be looking at how everyone votes [it]."

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat, was more blunt. "We would definitely reconsider our position [on the moratorium]," he said. "I certainly would."

In an analysis based on 2004 tax data, Baltimore City would gain about $2 million if the tax deadline were changed. Prince George's County could pick up $16.5 million. But Baltimore County would lose more than $7 million and Montgomery County more than $18 million.

City delegates seem to be taking the threat seriously. An extra $2 million doesn't mean as much to them, they say, as stopping the state's planned school takeover.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, who led last week's frenzied push for the moratorium, said the city would not risk Montgomery's support for an override by backing the formula change. The state school board voted last week for new management of 11 Baltimore middle and high schools, the first action of its kind under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. City lawmakers say the election-year decision was made without proper consultation.

Though lawmakers approved the moratorium with veto-proof margins, losing Montgomery's support, and possibly that of Baltimore County, could cost the city a victory. To override a veto, it takes 29 votes in the Senate - the moratorium had 30 - and 85 in the House. The House passed the measure with 100 votes.

"We're not entertaining this at all," McFadden said of the date change. "We don't want to risk their support."

Del. Doyle L. Niemann, the Prince George's Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the goal behind adjusting the funding calculations would be to ensure a fair and complete distribution of state money

"Either we have a formula that does its best to be fair or we have one that's skewed," he said, calling Montgomery lawmakers' use of the moratorium as leverage in their fight against his bill "unconscionable."

"What moral authority does the richest county in the state have to blackmail the poorest?" he said.

Former Baltimore Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who helped craft the original funding formula, said the state should change the tax date.

"The politics may make people uncomfortable," she said, "But ... the formula isn't equitable if you can't count the income tax in the right place."

Sun reporter Kelly Brewington contributed to this article.

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