Md. Rejects Pr. George's, Montgomery Requests to Cut Funds for Schools

By Nelson Hernandez and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 16, 2009

Maryland officials yesterday denied requests by the Montgomery and Prince George's County governments to reduce their share of education spending, sending both counties scrambling to find alternatives to layoffs and furloughs as they revise their budgets in the midst of the recession.

The state Board of Education's decision blows a $79.5 million hole in Montgomery's plans for balancing the books and comes less than a week before the County Council is scheduled to take its final budget vote Thursday. Council members were already trying to close a projected shortfall of more than $550 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Prince George's is in a similar position and must now plug a $23.6 million gap in its budget.

Both county governments had hoped to balance their budgets by cutting education funding below the state-mandated minimum, known as "maintenance of effort." But the state board rejected their arguments and a similar request from Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore, noting that 21 of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions had been able to pay their share for education despite the recession.

The rejection jarred leaders in Montgomery, where County Executive Isiah Leggett and Superintendent Jerry D. Weast agreed on the need for the waiver.

"Despite the agreement between the two governmental entities, the evidence and argument presented do not demonstrate by a preponderance of evidence that extraordinary events occurred in the county that significantly impede the county's ability to fund its [maintenance of effort] requirement," the board wrote in a 14-page decision signed by nine of its 12 members. "We conclude that the county has not met its burden of proof."

One member did not sign, and two dissented.

"The Montgomery County case is a unique one," wrote Blair G. Ewing, a board member from Montgomery, who praised the agreement between the county government and the school system as "an example of good government at work." Board member Donna Hill Staton also dissented.

The board's president, James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr., declined through a spokesman to comment. The board's rulings can be appealed in the county's Circuit Court.

Leggett (D) and County Council President Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) expressed frustration, calling the decision "totally unjustified" and "unwarranted."

"This is a classic example of state bureaucrats second-guessing an agreement reached on the local level," Leggett and Andrews said in a joint statement, which warned of "further cuts in critical services such as public safety, positive youth programs, libraries, and help to the most vulnerable county residents."

Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who chairs the education committee, said that she and her colleagues were not "panic-stricken" but that the timing of the decision was unfortunate. "This is not a joke. We're not living in a fantasy land," she said. "They left us with no time and few options."

At its essence, the decision gives Montgomery's public schools $79 million more than they had anticipated receiving. The ruling puts the council in the position of choosing to trim that amount from the county budget or trying to find other means of freeing up additional funds. The county could still decide, for instance, not to fund the public schools at the level required by the state, but that move would result in the school system losing $50 million in state aid. The government could also try to charge the school system for costs it covers, such as annual debt service on bonds for school building projects.

In Prince George's, County Executive Jack B. Johnson and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. had not reached an agreement, and each argued before the board for his priorities. Johnson said he could be forced to cut spending on public safety, and Hite said cuts to education could threaten the county's efforts to improve struggling schools.

The state board decided that the recession had not produced "significant, extraordinary" effects in Prince George's any worse than those in other counties struggling with declining revenue from property and transfer taxes.

Johnson (D) expressed frustration with the ruling, saying, "They are telling us to find $24 million, and I don't know where we get it."

Faced with a deep budget shortfall, Johnson proposed a $2.58 billion spending plan in March that eliminated more than 300 jobs, including 170 in public safety, and imposed a 10-day furlough on county workers -- on top of 10 days in unpaid leave in this budget year.

Vince Canales, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, said he was disappointed that the waiver was rejected and said further cuts to public safety could put lives in jeopardy.

"We keep hearing our elected officials say public safety and education are our two most important issues," Canales said. "But based on some of their actions, it leads me to question whether that's true."

Staff writer Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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