Published Online: February 12, 1997

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Md. Counties Take Aim at Baltimore Aid Proposal

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Maryland's deal to boost state aid to the struggling Baltimore schools got off to a rocky start in the legislature as leaders of several other counties said they would like more money, too.

"This has to be equitable, not just all Baltimore and just a penny in the pot for everybody else," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Democrat from Montgomery County, a Washington suburb.

Leonard Lucchi, an aide to the county executive in Prince George's County, also outside Washington, added that schools there ought to be given an extra $180 million since they have the second-highest percentage of poor students in the state after Baltimore.

"I don't think anyone opposes Baltimore getting money, but it's justified for us as well," he said.

The state got itself into a jam after it came to terms with only Baltimore officials over a school finance lawsuit the district filed against the state. The district would get more aid and the state would get greater control over the district under the deal forged last November by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and Nancy S. Grasmick, the state schools chief. ("Deal Gives State New Role in Baltimore Schools, Boosts Aid," Nov. 20, 1996.)

A House bill that would make the deal law earmarks $254 million for Baltimore schools over five years. In addition to settling the school finance action, the deal would bring to a close a decade-long suit against Baltimore brought by a Maryland disability-rights organization charging that special education students were denied guaranteed services.

The plan, which looked like it killed several birds with one stone, would also put to rest a disagreement over the management of the 104,000-student Baltimore city schools. The agreement calls for replacing Baltimore's superintendent and school board with a team of executives and a new school board selected by the mayor and the governor.

Searching for Solution

But what looked like a solution has turned into a politically charged problem--one that must be addressed quickly in the legislative session that opened last month. Lawmakers must ratify the agreement before the session ends April 7 or the dispute would return to the courts.

Officials from throughout Maryland and many state legislators say the state's deal with Baltimore is not a good way to address school funding problems.

John Gary, the Anne Arundel County executive, said the legislature should not feel as if it is under pressure from the court. The governor's settlement, he said, usurps the legislature's authority to design its own funding system.

And further complicating the issue beyond the resistance from across the state is a plan by Gov. Glendening to cut personal income taxes in the state by 10 percent over three years--a measure that would make substantial new money for schools much harder to find.

State leaders have consistently argued that the problems of Baltimore, home to half of the state's poor children and many troubled schools, demand unique solutions.

Late last month, the state education department announced that 10 more Baltimore schools where students scored poorly on state tests would have to improve or face state intervention. That brings to 50--one-third of all city schools--the number of Baltimore schools now targeted for state action.

"We need people to understand the dire straits Baltimore is in," Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Gov. Glendening, said. "Any long-term negative outcomes will far outweigh what we are putting into this agreement."

Ms. Grasmick contended that Baltimore is relinquishing a significant amount of power in exchange for the new money, an arrangement she suggests most counties would not tolerate.

Baltimore Expects Shakeup

Already, the agreement has prompted a leadership shake-up in Baltimore. Superintendent Walter G. Amprey announced last month that he plans to resign his office before his contract expires if the settlement is ratified.

Most of the city's legislators are pushing the deal, though they plan to file an amended bill that would strengthen bargaining rights for teachers in the district's schools and make other modifications.

Ronald A. Peiffer, an assistant state superintendent, and other supporters of the agreement say they are optimistic that the bill can still make its way through the House.

But as lawmakers have already shown, any prediction of what will happen on school funding is nothing more than that--a guess.

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