Montgomery County might sue Md. over school funding law

County Executive Isiah Leggett said the attorney general is
County Executive Isiah Leggett said the attorney general is "second-guessing" local efforts. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

Top Montgomery County officials threatened Thursday to sue the state and "aggressively pursue" legislation that would change state law after Maryland's attorney general found that the county had failed to meet the state's minimum level of funding for education. The opinion renders it potentially liable for millions of dollars in penalties.

A joint statement by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and County Council President Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) called the attorney general's opinion "disappointing -- and wrong" and said it "second-guesses" the efforts of county and school officials to balance their budgets during economically troubled times.

"I've been talking to my attorneys the last day or two," Leggett said in an interview Thursday. "What we've done, we believe, is consistent with meeting the requirement."

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's opinion said Montgomery and Prince George's counties had "artificially" satisfied the state law that sets a minimum level for education funding. The Maryland State Board of Education decides whether to penalize the counties' school systems.

Montgomery officials have said the school system could be liable for $16 million to $64 million -- lost funding that officials said could affect students and teachers, as well as county services such as police and road maintenance.

Leggett and Andrews vowed to fight back in court and the General Assembly.

"I think the law should take into consideration the flexibility and the challenges we face locally," Leggett said. As the law is written, "you penalize the very people the law is trying to help," he said.

The central issue is the ability of local governments to comply with Maryland's "maintenance of effort" law, which sets minimum spending on education. During the years before the recession, Montgomery spent far more than the minimum, exceeding the requirement by $576.8 million over the past decade.

But during the economic downturn, Montgomery and Prince George's have had trouble meeting the minimum requirement.

Both counties, as well as Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore, asked for waivers from the state law so they could reduce their education budgets. In Montgomery's case, the school system and County Council had agreed on $79.5 million in spending cuts.

But in May, the State Board of Education denied all three requests, saying the counties had not shown that the recession had affected them any more than it had Maryland's 21 other jurisdictions. The decision infuriated county officials.

"The decision of the state board, and I've read it several times, made no sense at all," Andrews said in an interview Thursday. "It essentially said that unless you're hit by an asteroid you're not going to qualify for a waiver."

Prince George's has a lawsuit pending on the State Board of Education's waiver decision; the county school board has asked the court to dismiss the case.

The county councils in Montgomery and Prince George's eventually ordered their school systems to reimburse them for debt service on public school construction, an expense usually covered by the counties. The move was controversial: Montgomery County Council member Mike Knapp (D-Upcounty) called it "a bit of gimmickry."

But Knapp and other County Council members seemed to agree that the law ought to be changed.

"The law should at least take into account a situation like Montgomery County's, where we have spent more than half a billion dollars over the requirement," Andrews said. "We would be penalized for doing exactly what they want us to do, which is spending money on education. The law doesn't make sense."

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