Cutting school funds

6 counties seek state's OK to waive some spending

General Assembly 2009

April 02, 2009|By Gadi Dechter and Laura Smitherman | Gadi Dechter and Laura Smitherman,gadi.dechter@baltsun.com and laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

Several Maryland counties have asked the state Board of Education for permission to reduce spending on local schools, requests that come as the Maryland Senate wrestles with a $13.8 billion state budget that slashes aid to localities.

Local governments must increase their contribution to schools each year according to certain formulas to qualify for state aid to education. Wednesday was the deadline to ask for a temporary waiver of the requirement, and applications were "coming in fast and furious," said Board of Education spokesman William Reinhard.

Facing deep cuts in state funding, local leaders gathered in Annapolis to warn of layoffs and cutbacks in local services if budget reductions are approved. The Senate, meanwhile, gave preliminary approval to its version of the state operating budget, setting the stage for negotiations with the House of Delegates.

Among the counties asking for so-called "maintenance of effort" waivers are Anne Arundel, Charles, Frederick, Calvert, Prince George's and Montgomery. By law, the Board of Education must hold public hearings on the waiver requests and issue decisions by May 15, though a Senate budget-balancing bill would extend those deadlines.

"The severity and duration of the current economic recession and the consequent reduction in resources are forcing us to temporarily and reluctantly reduce the county's local contribution" to education, wrote Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold in a waiver request to the state board.

Anne Arundel faces a $150 million revenue shortfall in the budget year beginning July 1 and wants permission to cut its school system budget by $9 million. In response to Leopold's request, the Anne Arundel County school board yesterday voted to oppose the move. Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell called it a "catastrophic step backward."

For some recession-wracked jurisdictions, school spending is the most palatable area for cuts because they are expecting huge infusions of education dollars from Washington's two-year stimulus plan. In Arundel, officials are holding out hope that overall spending on education will increase, thanks to the federal stimulus even if the county's proposed reductions - and those anticipated at the state level - are approved.

Pressuring state lawmakers to change their decisions, local governments decry a House plan to transfer from counties about $60 million in local "piggyback" income tax revenue. Senators have decided to further reduce the local share of highway user funds by that amount.

The Senate debated its version of the state budget for much of the day, with exchanges over policy sometimes turning testy.

The Senate voted for an amendment that would prohibit the Motor Vehicle Administration from spending money to issue licenses to people who fail to prove they are legally in the U.S. and agreed to leave $2 million in a Fair Campaign Financing Fund after hearing concerns that draining the fund to balance the budget would harm Republican challengers to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Baltimore Sun reporters Nicole Fuller and Tyeesha Dixon contributed to this article.

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