An edgy O'Malley ally

Teachers union cool to bid that would raise spending yet spur cuts

November 05, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

The Maryland State Teachers Association posted a video on YouTube last week highlighting the shortcomings of the state's schools: old books, portable classrooms, sweltering classrooms, large class sizes.

"We've made real progress over the last four years, but many schools lack the tools and resources they need to help all students succeed," the video says. "And now our leaders are talking about cuts to education to balance the state's budget."

Yet look on the teachers association Web site, and it says that a vote in favor of Gov. Martin O'Malley's revenue package "is a vote for public schools." That revenue package, while providing more for education than an earlier proposal, would still prompt serious cuts in many districts.

The ambiguous position of the state teachers union highlights the dilemma facing education leaders across the state as the General Assembly reconvenes a special session this week to weigh O'Malley's proposal to close a $1.7 billion budget shortfall.

On one hand, the education establishment played a big role in getting O'Malley elected, and educators count on him for continued support. At the same time, his revenue package would leave schools scrambling. The Baltimore City school system projects cuts totaling $131 million over three years if the plan goes into effect.

Some in the education community have parted ways with the governor, demanding full funding of the legislation known as Thornton.

Others have stayed out of the debate. And others have backed O'Malley's plan, fearing that if it is not passed, as the governor's office has warned, the alternative will be far worse.

"We were very clear in saying that O'Malley, after we endorsed him and worked hard for his election, disappointed us," said David E. Helfman, executive director of the teachers union. "But we've also said that he deserves credit for engaging us and listening and doing what he could to address some of the major concerns we raised."

Despite what appears to be an endorsement of the O'Malley plan on the association's Web site, Helfman said, "we have not endorsed his funding proposal for schools. ... We don't believe the funding in the first two years is sufficient."

He said the group's position is "not a simple sound bite."

In 2002, the General Assembly passed the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act. The legislation - commonly called Thornton after Alvin Thornton, chairman of the commission that studied funding adequacy - grew out of a lawsuit charging that the state was unlawfully underfunding Baltimore's schools. It injected an extra $1.5 billion into public education across Maryland over five years.

Thornton funding sunsets after the current academic year. From next summer on, the legislation provides for further funding increases based on inflation. But the inflation index has been rising rapidly during the past five years, and O'Malley officials say an inflation-based funding increase would cost $175 million more than anticipated.

The governor initially proposed a freeze on inflation-related increases. He then revised his proposal to provide all school systems with an increase of at least 1 percent for the next two years, after which increases would be calculated based on the consumer price index.

He also has committed to cover for part of Thornton that has never before been funded. Called the "geographic cost of education index," it would provide extra money for 13 school systems where the cost of living is higher.

But the budget bill O'Malley introduced does not guarantee the geographic index funding, which would provide $38 million next year and $129 million over three years to the 13 systems.

Even more troublesome to many educators, O'Malley's proposed 1 percent increase largely will go toward the growing cost of teacher pensions that the state would be required to cover anyway. Money going directly to schools would be virtually flat in some cases and decline slightly in others.

In Anne Arundel County, for example, direct aid would decline from $266.2 million this year to $264.5 million next year, according to figures from the Department of Legislative Services. If the geographic index were funded, Arundel schools would get another $2.6 million next year, effectively breaking even in dollars but losing money when built-in cost increases such as electricity and health benefits are considered.

Arundel Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said the money from the geographic index would be "more than offset by the loss of the inflation factor."

Maxwell was one of three superintendents who appeared before a joint committee of legislators in Annapolis last week to oppose the governor's funding plan. Andres Alonso, chief executive of the Baltimore City school system, testified alongside city school board Chairman Brian D. Morris, urging legislators not to balance the budget at the expense of children.

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