Senate Oks Budget, Criticized On School Aid

General Assembly 2009

April 03, 2009|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

The Maryland Senate approved its version of the state's annual budget Thursday, drawing vocal opposition from education advocates who warn that lawmakers are shortchanging schools.

Amid plunging state tax revenues, the Senate voted 40-7 for the $13.8 billion spending plan that incorporates hundreds of millions of dollars from a federal economic stimulus package while trimming local government aid and various programs.

The budget is now in the hands of a cross-chamber conference committee with the House of Delegates, which made fewer spending cuts than the Senate. Lawmakers must work out the disagreements.

The committee might work this weekend, as the legislature seeks to meet a Monday deadline to pass next year's budget.

But another budget battle was waged outside the State House among educators and advocates who object to the Senate bill. Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso shot off an e-mail to colleagues urging them to contact their senators and delegates to protest provisions in the legislation.

While aid for public schools increases by $82 million in the Senate bill for fiscal year 2010 that begins in July, senators tweaked certain funding formulas.

One provision cuts $50 million from a formula providing money to elementary and secondary schools where the cost of education is highest, directing that money instead to school construction that's normally funded in the separate capital budget.

Other provisions include freezing part of the landmark Thornton education funding plan in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, saving about $100 million a year.

"What the Senate version does is undermine Thornton, which guarantees an adequate level of funding for all kids," said Rob English, lead organizer for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, one of the groups fighting the budget provisions.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, also raised concerns that federal stimulus money comes with strings attached, making it difficult for schools to budget. She said the state is seeking a federal waiver to use the money for broader purposes, but she worries about being denied. "We are getting more money," she said. "But we can't use it."

Baltimore Sun reporter Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.

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