Schools, counties spar over budget cuts

Md. districts unable to raise own funds

May 02, 2007|By Ruma Kumar and Gina Davis | Ruma Kumar and Gina Davis,Sun Reporters

At dueling news conferences in Annapolis yesterday, local officials proudly unveiled a proposed Anne Arundel County budget that they balanced without tax increases - but school leaders angrily decried their portion as "not meeting the needs of children."

In Towson, school officials were up in arms over tens of millions of dollars cut by the Baltimore County executive from a $118 million increase they had hoped to use for textbooks, more kindergarten aides, and an infusion of funds to help low-income middle school students in the 2008 fiscal budget.

Conflicts over budgets are nothing new in local government. However in Maryland - where most school boards are appointed by the governor but depend on budgets written by county governments - the infighting can be especially severe.

Maryland is one of nine states that don't grant any of their school districts the authority to levy taxes. Conversely, 34 states allow their generally elected school boards to levy property or income taxes to fund schools within parameters set by state law or referendum.

"What you want is the leader of the county or the municipality and the schools to see eye to eye, to trust each other, to agree on the priorities," said Mike Griffith, a school finance expert with Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based nonprofit that tracks education policy trends. "When that doesn't happen it's all loggerheads."

When it works well, Maryland's system allows county governments to act as a check and balance for school systems, reducing waste and cementing common priorities, Griffith said. When it doesn't work well, school officials feel marginalized in a process where they feel they ought to be considered experts.

"I'm not a person who is unrealistic, who doesn't think we may need to cut our budget. But why wouldn't the school system be in charge of making the cuts instead of people who are not educators?" asked Baltimore County school board member Meg O'Hare. "It's almost arbitrary. That's the problem. We have no idea why things are cut."

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said the school system's budget office is kept informed during his budget development process. He said his budget office staff works closely with the school system's budget office to identify priorities, particularly when it becomes apparent that the system's funding requests can't be fully met.

"I ask them to help us," he said. "So many people on the school board say that it's our responsibility to tell them what they can't afford. I don't deal directly with the school board, but they can find out what we're looking at by talking to the school's budget office."

Barbara Burnopp, chief financial officer for the 106,000-student school system, said the county executive's budget staff contacts her staff for additional information. She said, however, that the school system isn't aware of how this exchange of information will affect the county's decisions until the county executive submits his proposal to the council.

Smith said he doesn't have "line item control" and the school system has the right to spend money - within spending categories, such as salaries - as it sees fit.

"The funding structure in Maryland has always been fuzzy," Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said. "It varies from local district to local district and depends on the caliber of people who want power and authority. ... I have no funding control, but I do know by law that the county government's duty is to fund, not run, the school system."

The head of Anne Arundel's school system asked the county for at least $616.5 million for next year's budget. He got $542.5 million, far less than the amount he insisted he needs for a system "on the tipping point" and about to absorb several thousand new pupils as a result of military base growth.

School officials bracing for steep cuts to their budget didn't attend the unveiling of County Executive John Leopold's budget yesterday. They convened their own news conference three hours later.

Anne Arundel County schools had hoped the county government would give them for $101 million more than they received this year; they got $27 million more.

The shortfall is likely to increase class sizes, endanger the district's plan for tighter school security and hamper the district's ability to deliver on a state mandate to have full-day kindergarten, Kevin M. Maxwell, superintendent of Arundel's 74,000-student system said at his news conference.

He blamed Leopold's campaign promise to not raise taxes.

"This was not about meeting the needs of the children," he said. "It was about not raising taxes, not raising revenue to conform to the needs of the children."

Leopold said he was fulfilling a pledge to maintain fiscal discipline and have county government live within its means. He said the county is providing more money than ever to schools.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.