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Md. panel’s school-funding vote defuses fight with teachers; pension-plan rift remains

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A key committee of Maryland lawmakers sidestepped at least one bruising battle with teachers unions Wednesday by voting to restore the bulk of budget cuts sought by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

The decision followed Monday’s protest by teachers unions and state employees against the governor’s budget and his plan to increase their pension and retiree health-care contributions. The demonstration drew the largest crowd to the Maryland State House in more than a decade.

In a rare bipartisan vote, the House Appropriations subcommittee on education voted to keep per-pupil spending the same as it has been for the past several years and above a hard-fought baseline that teachers at Monday’s rally promised to vigorously protect.

“It’s an improvement on the governor’s budget,” said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary’s), the committee’s chairman. “I think that’s how the counties would look at it. But it’s a compromise — no one is going to be enamored. They’re not going to be thrilled with it.”

Under the subcommittee’s plan, O’Malley’s proposed freeze on education spending would become a $58 million increase, or about 60 percent of the $94 million boost that education groups said should go to schools to meet its “Thornton formula.”

Maryland State Education Association spokesman Adam Mendelson said the union was “encouraged” by the committee vote but was still pushing for the state Senate to restore all of the school funding — something lawmakers close to the negotiations said was unlikely.

After outcries in recent weeks by public-employees unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere that have watched their power to collectively bargain be stripped away, the 71,000-member MSEA and other education advocates have said they would “draw a line in the sand” against even a modest school-funding cut contained in O’Malley’s proposed budget and oppose his pension plan, which would require employees to pay more for health care in retirement and contribute an extra 2 percent of their pay toward their pensions.

O’Malley’s freeze would have, in effect, cut school spending by 2 percent, or $55 per student, as the state’s overall enrollment is projected to grow in 2012.

“We’re certainly encouraged by the progress but hope to have education fully funded” by the time the General Assembly adjourns April 11, Mendelson said.

Del. Nancy Stocksdale (R-Carroll County), who was the only lawmaker to oppose the plan after the other Republican on the committee, Del. Kathy Szeliga (Baltimore County), voted for it, said she found it unconscionable given the state’s $1.6 billion shortfall and the governor’s plan to increase overall spending next year.

“We haven’t touched education for years, and I really believe that if we are going to do anything about our structural deficit and keep a balanced budget, we can’t keep spending and spending,” Stocksdale said. “I believe everybody has to tighten their belts, and that includes K-12 education.”

For much of the past four years, record school-spending increases proposed by O’Malley made him and other Maryland lawmakers mutual cheerleaders with the state’s powerful teachers unions.

When they came to Annapolis each winter, lawmakers locked arms with union leaders on the House floor in full-throated, fist-pumping renditions of “We’re No. 1.” The chants echoed through the State House with a double meaning: Not only were Maryland schools tops in the country, according to a popular magazine ranking, but also, the state’s education budget was seemingly untouchable, continuing to rise even as funding for almost every other state service withered.

The support was returned to lawmakers last fall. Teachers unions were among the first to endorse O’Malley in his winning reelection bid. Members were fixtures on the campaign trail, shouting “O-MAL-LEY” and, with little prompting, the names of just about any other state Democratic incumbent in need of a boost.

But the MSEA called O’Malley’s budget this year a fundamental abandonment of the state’s landmark Thornton law, which resulted in a floor of $6,694 in per-pupil spending.

To reach that goal, annual education spending in the past six years has increased roughly $1.3 billion to nearly $4.9 billion annually. To maintain the increase in the budget year beginning in July, O’Malley would have needed to add $94 million, or nearly 1 percent.

Complicating the problem, enrollment is projected to shift across the state — up 2,200 students in Montgomery County, for example, and down 365 in Prince George’s County. Combined with other formula factors, that means Montgomery’s share of education spending would have increased more than $33 million, while that for Prince George’s would have decreased by nearly $21 million, even though the latter still has some of the state’s worst-performing schools.

The subcommittee’s proposal halves the cuts to Prince George’s schools and sends even more money to Montgomery.

Bohanan and other senior members of the House Appropriations committee, which is scheduled to vote on the compromise Friday, said the money would come from a combination of offsetting cuts to other areas, including higher education, and potentially additional fees, which could be decided Friday.

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