Miller, Busch warn counties to maintain school spending

January 06, 2012|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

CAMBRIDGE — The legislature's Democratic leaders scolded county officials Friday for failing to keep up their end of the bargain to fund K-12 education, raising the possibility that the General Assembly will revisit the state's landmark school-funding formula during the 90-day session that starts next week.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch stressed that Maryland has a "huge" investment in education compared with neighboring states. "We ask that counties step up," Busch said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller was more blunt. "Some of you are slipping on maintenance of effort," he said, referring to a funding mechanism that is supposed to ensure that counties don't reduce school funding when the state adds money. "We can't go backward. Our students need the best possible education."

The leaders made their comments at the annual Maryland Association of Counties winter conference.

In the past few years, counties have received less money for some programs from the state budget as tax revenues have dried up. But the state has tried to draw the line at schools funding.

In the past few years, localities have received less money for some programs from the state budget as tax revenues have dried up. But the state has tried to draw the line at schools funding.

This year's Maryland budget includes a record $5.8 billion in funding for K-12 education, a 1 percent increase over the previous year. That does not include money for school construction.

Legislative leaders are now worried that some local officials are using what should be schools funding to fill holes elsewhere.

Last year, six counties requested state waivers of their maintenance-of-effort requirement. In May the state school board issued an opinion saying that the law needs to be amended to prevent more school systems from reducing their funding. If counties decrease the amount they spend on education, the state can penalize them the following year by cutting their funding.

During Friday's presentation, Miller also touched on the thorny issue of moving some of the costs for teacher pensions to the counties. He has long supported the change, and the state Senate has passed such legislation in recent years.

Last year, Gov. Martin O'Malley said he wanted to first shore up the pension system by cutting some benefits to make it "sustainable" before sticking the counties with part of the bill.

Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin also addressed the conference, arguing that the governor and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly make policy that benefits the suburban and urban parts of the state at the expense of rural areas. He listed proposed controls on septic systems, possible taxes and the toll increase put in place last fall.

"It is a series of policies that has left rural Maryland in the dust," Pipkin said.

Busch was ready for the attack, responding that the General Assembly has worked hard on behalf of rural areas, even though their lawmakers tend not to vote with Democratic leadership.

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