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Fuzzy Math in Maryland

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

THE NUMBERS didn't add up. When Maryland distributed aid to school systems for the current fiscal year, Montgomery County received millions less than expected. Perplexed county leaders repeatedly questioned state officials, only to be told that everything was fine. In fact, the state had made an accounting error that caused it to short Montgomery schools by more than $20 million while overpaying other counties. This may not amount to a "coverup," as Montgomery School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast contended, but Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is right to pledge to make up the difference to the county and find out what went wrong.

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Maryland awards funds to schools through a complex formula that shifts money from wealthy counties, such as Montgomery, to poorer districts. For fiscal 2009, the State Department of Assessments and Taxation estimated that real estate values in Montgomery rose dramatically compared with values in other counties. As a result, the state sent less aid than expected to Montgomery, forcing school officials to scramble to make cuts. But the state's estimate puzzled county leaders; Montgomery was already feeling the early tremors of the economic downturn. Local leaders asked state budget officials to recheck their math. They were assured that the numbers were accurate. Only when the state began to prepare estimates for fiscal 2010 did officials realize that something was amiss. County leaders say the mistake could have been corrected before the start of the school year if the Department of Assessments and Taxation had acted promptly.

Mr. O'Malley has promised that Montgomery will receive the lost funds and that other counties won't have to repay any extra money they received for fiscal 2009. To accomplish that, he may have to add to the state's steep deficit. The state's miscalculation, meanwhile, may mean that some counties will get less than they anticipate in coming years. Prince George's County has been told to expect millions less in state funds for 2010. Interim Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he was "shocked" and "dismayed" when he saw the estimate.

Mr. O'Malley told The Post, "Sometimes state government makes mistakes." True, but that can't be the final answer. The state should find out how the mistake was made and why officials apparently shrugged off the complaints of Montgomery officials for so long.


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