County seeking relief

Leopold asks state to waive required annual school spending increase

April 05, 2009|By Tyeesha Dixon and Nicole Fuller | Tyeesha Dixon and Nicole Fuller,tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com and nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold has asked the state to waive a required annual funding increase for public schools, saying that the additional $9 million in school funding would put further strain on the county, which is already facing a $144 million shortfall.

Leopold, joined by County Council Chairman Edward R. Reilly, made the request for a waiver of the so-called "maintenance of effort" law in a letter to Maryland State Board of Education President James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr. Meanwhile, Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell and the county school board vowed to fight against the proposed funding cut.

"The basis for this request is that the county's fiscal condition prevents us from funding the MOE requirement without seriously impairing other county services, including public safety, social and health services to the most vulnerable residents, post-secondary education, library and other vital, locally funded public programs," the letter reads.

Maintenance of effort requires local governments to increase annually their contributions to schools by using certain formulas to qualify for state aid for education.

In addition to Anne Arundel, seven other jurisdictions - Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery, Prince George's, Wicomico and Worcester - also have filed for the waiver, according to William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education.

Anne Arundel had never before requested a waiver for MOE, but in 1992 education officials waived MOE for the entire state. By law, the Board of Education must hold public hearings on the waiver requests and issue decisions by May 15.

In response to Leopold's request, the county school board on Wednesday voted to oppose the move.

Maxwell called the waiver a "catastrophic step backward" and said he would forward a letter to state officials registering his and the board's disapproval.

"[Budget projections are] just getting worse by the day, and we're trying to operate our school district in an effective way that will ensure ongoing achievement goals," Maxwell said. "Another $9 million hurts."

Leopold's waiver application seeks permission to fund the school system at a level of approximately $544 million for the fiscal year beginning in July, a $7 million decrease from FY2009 and $9 million below the current minimum requirement.

School officials said they have already worked hard to pare the budget, with cuts to staff positions, reductions in contractual services, professional development and the suspension of all nonessential purchases of supplies and equipment.

School board member Eugene Peterson criticized Leopold for requesting the waiver, calling the move neither "morally or fiscally responsible" and questioned whether Reilly could sign onto the request without first taking a vote of the full council.

"When times get difficult, to go after those who don't have a voice, which is school children ... . I think maintenance of effort is in there for a reason," Peterson said. "The proposal by the county executive goes way beyond maintenance of effort, and does in effect, politicize the education budget."

Leopold said he does not think the quality of education would suffer as a result of the waiver. He pointed out that the county has increased its contribution to K-through-12 education by more than 90 percent in the past decade, despite no increase in student enrollment.

"I was very reluctant to seek a waiver because I believe the county should not use state money to supplant county money," Leopold said. "[But] my focus necessarily must be the entire county budget. I can't ask 50 percent of the budget to shoulder 100 percent of the sacrifice."

To address the $144 million budget shortfall for the next fiscal year, the county has taken other cost-cutting measures to date, including negotiating labor contracts and cutting the use of take-home cars.

In the letter, the county also says that reductions in public safety will be made by eliminating 37 uniformed police positions and canceling the police and fire recruit classes planned for fiscal 2010.

Leopold said that some of the budgetary items that will benefit schools were not listed under the school budget, including school resource officers and a parenting program offered at Anne Arundel Community College.

Reilly, who represents South County, said the council will discuss at its Monday meeting whether it wants to pass a resolution supporting the waiver.

"We need to be able to balance the shortfall in some way rather than pile it all on the administration," Reilly said.

Although the county will likely be able to fill some of next year's revenue shortfall with several one-time revenue resources, including the county's never-been-used $46 million rainy day fund, Reilly said that that alternative should be avoided.

"The problem we're having is if you have a reoccurring expense and you use up your reserves, what happens if we still have problems in those out years?" Reilly said. "We have no reserves left."

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