Maryland's state school board said in an opinion issued Wednesday saying that it believes state law needs to be amended to prevent county governments from reducing their current levels of school funding.
Six county governments appear to be poised to reduce their school system budgets, going against the "maintenance of effort" provision that requires them to fund schools at the same level as the previous year.
The board issued its opinion after the Montgomery County school system, which is fighting the Montgomery County Council's decision to reduce money to schools, asked for a ruling.
The state board said in its opinion that if the trend continues, "we express serious concerns about maintaining adequate funding for education in Maryland. The Maintenance of Effort statute, as is currently written, has the ability to undo this basic funding cornerstone of Maryland public education."
The legislature passed the landmark Thornton law nearly a decade ago. It provided an increase of more than $1 billion in state aid to give all students access to an adequate education whether they live in Montgomery County or Baltimore City.
Under state law, counties were not allowed to take advantage of this big infusion of new state aid if they reduced their local education budgets. But if they faced deficits, county governments could ask for a waiver from the "maintenance of effort" requirement.
During tough budget times this year, the state did not increase its funding to local systems but kept it at current levels. While some school systems at first asked for a waiver from the state board, they all then pulled that request. Besides Montgomery, the other counties that initially applied for a waiver are Anne Arundel, Kent, Queen Anne's, Talbot and Wicomico.
If counties decrease their local dollars, they are penalized and lose the state increase the following year.
"Thornton doesn't mean much if the state holds the line on funding, but the counties don't," said John Woolums, director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.
While the state board sided with Montgomery County government, which said the law did not require it to seek a waiver and therefore it could reduce funding, the board said that the legislature should act to tighten up the law so local funding does not slide.
"What this decision means is that the law allows counties to reduce their education appropriation with impunity," Woolums said.
But Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said close to half the counties in the state have seen a decrease in state funding for education, in part because those counties had a decline in enrollment.
Sanderson said some local budgets still have not been before their county councils for a final vote and could be changed. "There is a pretty big unknown. We are still speculating as to who might miss the maintenance of effort and who might look at a reduction," he said.
Three of the 12 state school board members issued a dissenting opinion, saying they believed that the law should be interpreted to require counties to maintain current levels of funding.