Schools leery of funding proposal

Alonso foresees large shortfall for city system

GENERAL ASSEMBLY special session

October 31, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

The Baltimore school system would face a $131 million budget shortfall over the next three years if Gov. Martin O'Malley's latest education funding proposal is adopted, city schools chief Andres Alonso testified in Annapolis yesterday.

The system is expecting a large increase in operating costs, in part because it is poised to give teachers a raise under a new contract. It desperately needs the state to abide by the current funding formula, which mandates increased funding to keep pace with inflation, or it will face deep cuts to stay afloat, Alonso said.

But O'Malley, who was a champion for the school system as Baltimore's mayor, wants to change the law as part of his plan to close the state's projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall. The General Assembly is considering that plan in a special session that began this week. The administration's "budget reconciliation" bill was the subject of a hearing yesterday.

Alonso and city school board Chairman Brian D. Morris, a longtime political ally of O'Malley, testified at a combined hearing of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, the House Committee on Appropriations, and the House Committee on Ways and Means. Both spoke in vehement opposition to the governor's education proposal. Morris told legislators to keep "hands off" school funding.

Legislators heard about the impact the bill would have on everything from electricity rates to higher education. But much of the hearing centered on Thornton, the 2002 legislation that channeled an extra $1.5 billion to Maryland schools over five years.

O'Malley, meanwhile, released an open letter to the Maryland Democratic Party, saying the budget shortfall was caused by the Thornton funding increase at the same time as a $1 billion income tax cut.

"In our budget solution," O'Malley wrote, "we're finally going to keep our promise - continuing to improve Maryland's schools - by adjusting growth, while maintaining record funding for schools."

Alonso disputed that position.

Even if O'Malley keeps the inflation increases for schools, Alonso said, the city schools still aren't receiving enough to provide children with an adequate education. While it's not his job to fix the state's budget woes, he said in an interview, "My job is to understand what it takes to educate children. It takes a great deal more than what we've been doing."

To legislators who think otherwise, he added: "Would they be happy sending their children to Baltimore City schools with the present level of funding?"

Alonso said he came to Baltimore from New York City this summer with an aggressive agenda to take resources away from the system's central bureaucracy and redistribute them directly to schools. If the proposed changes become law, Alonso said, he will instead be struggling to keep the system afloat.

After Thornton's sunset this fiscal year, the law now requires the state to provide annual increases to school systems based on inflation. O'Malley administration officials said at yesterday's hearing that the inflation index has increased from 2.4 percent in the 2004 fiscal year to 5.7 percent this year.

Trying to close the state's budget gap, O'Malley initially proposed freezing the inflation increase. Responding to protests, he released a new plan Friday that would guarantee each of the state's 24 school systems at least a 1 percent increase over the next two years and would use the consumer price index to calculate increases thereafter.

O'Malley has said he would also phase in an extra $129 million for 13 systems, including Baltimore's, over three years because of their higher costs for transportation and salaries. But the governor's budget bill does not include language requiring that.

Jan H. Gardner, a Frederick County commissioner and president of the Maryland Association of Counties, testified in favor of the governor's proposal, saying it "will ensure full funding that is sustainable." The Maryland State Teachers Association is also supporting O'Malley's funding plan.

Educators including Anne Arundel County Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell and Calvert County Superintendent Jack Smith testified in opposition.

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, told the hearing that O'Malley's original proposal would have cost city schools between $35 million and $40 million next school year. The new proposal, McFadden said, will still cost the city schools at least $18 million.

Without adding any new programs, the system will need $131 million more than O'Malley's new plan provides in the next three years, Alonso said. The system is projecting shortfalls of $51.2 million in the 2009 fiscal year, $47 million in fiscal 2010 and $32.7 million in fiscal 2011.

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