State may cut $38 million to local school districts

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December 20, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,matthew.brown@baltsun.com

Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget chief is recommending a $37.9 million cut to many of the state's largest school districts in the middle of the academic year, The Baltimore Sun has learned.

If cuts were applied evenly to the 13 affected districts, Baltimore would get $6.5 million less from the state this year, according to the proposal now being studied by O'Malley. Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties would sustain cuts of $1.5 million or more.

The cut would help the state close a $415 million gap in its current budget, which has been battered by declining revenues linked to the national economic downturn. Local officials called the proposal a further blow as they struggle with their own budget woes.

"We're operating in a very lean way now," said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel school system, which stands to lose $2.6 million. "We have made a series of painful cuts to balance our budget in this fiscal year, and any further reductions that we have to make will be painful."

Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso said he could not comment on the proposal because he had not seen it.

"In times of budget cuts, I know that many proposals are floated, and that doesn't mean they are adopted," he said. "I have not spoken to the governor, but I know he is a great supporter of public education, and it would be unfair for me to comment on speculation."

A spokesman for O'Malley said the governor has not decided how much to cut from the eduction fund, which is used to offset expenses in districts that face the highest costs. O'Malley had earlier identified the fund, a small component of the so-called Thornton Plan to increase education spending in Maryland by more than $1 billion, as a target for reductions.

"Everything is on the table," spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said, as the administration makes "difficult choices" to close the funding gap this year.

Abbruzzese said O'Malley has had "ongoing conversations" with school and union officials about potential education cuts and hopes to make a decision "relatively quickly" - possibly as early as next week.

State Budget Secretary T. Eloise Foster recommended slashing the $75.8 million Geographic Cost of Education Index fund by 50 percent in a letter to O'Malley dated Wednesday.

The index had never been funded by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who relied on the advice of the attorney general's office that the initiative was optional. Democrats criticized that position, and O'Malley campaigned on a pledge to fully fund the education program.

But O'Malley did not include money for the program in his first budget, and last year offered to pay for only 60 percent of its costs. Now the percentage is likely to drop further.

Foster told the governor the reduction is necessary. She said the cut would amount to less than 1 percent of state support for K-12 education, and even with the cut, that support still would grow by 3 percent this year. She urged the governor to make a decision "as expeditiously as possible."

O'Malley is looking for $200 million in new cuts from the state's $14 billion operating budget, on top of $300 million he trimmed earlier this year. He issued an executive order this week requiring 67,000 state workers to take up to five days of unpaid leave, and said he would likely seek additional reductions in Medicaid expansion and the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund.

School districts also have been tightening their belts. In Anne Arundel, Mosier said, officials already have stripped $8.3 million in expenses from the current budget by leaving 200 nonclassroom jobs unfilled and curtailing professional development and equipment purchases. The $977 budget that Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell proposed recently for next year would boost spending by 4.9 percent, the lowest increase in a decade.

Under Foster's recommendation, Howard County schools would lose $1.5 million from the current year's budget. Baltimore County would lose $1.6 million.

A Baltimore County schools spokeswoman said the district was waiting to be notified of any funding changes.

"When we get that information, we'll be in a position to better analyze it," spokeswoman Kara E.B. Calder said. "The GCEI funding matter isn't something that will really stand out on its own. What's more important will be the total funding picture."

School officials in Montgomery County, which faces a $9.2 million cut, already have instituted hiring and spending restrictions, spokesman Steve Simon said. With the county government facing a $500 million shortfall, the school district is looking for $20 million in reductions.

Simon said the state cut would be "another blow to our budget."

Prince George's County, which receives the most money, would take the biggest hit: $11.8 million. As it happens, school officials there had set aside precisely that amount in a contingency fund.

"Unfortunately, we hit it exactly," spokesman John White said. He said exhausting the contingency money "just makes meeting our students' needs even more difficult.

"We definitely have needs that this could have been used for," he said. "Obviously, we don't have the luxury of having a whole lot of extra money."

Baltimore Sun reporters Nicole Fuller, Arin Gencer, Sara Neufeld and Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

proposed cuts to school districts

District Aid currently budgeted Proposed cut

Prince George's Co. $ 23,619,000 $11,809,500

Montgomery County $18,373,000 $9,186,500

Baltimore City $13,032,000 $6,516,000

Anne

Arundel Co. $5,177,000 $2,588,500

Baltimore County $3,214,000 $1,607,000

Howard County $2,924,000 $1,462,000

Carroll County $1,574,000 $787,000

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