Proposal would help Md. counties reduce education funding

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009

County governments could have an easier time cutting education funding under recommendations adopted by a group of Maryland officials Thursday.

The recommendations could go into a bill that ultimately would give more flexibility to county governments seeking to trim their budgets during difficult economic times. Education, often a large portion of county government spending, is difficult to cut because of the state's "maintenance of effort" law, which sets a spending level below which counties may not go.

Counties may request a waiver from the law, but it has to be approved by the State Board of Education. The board rejected requests by Montgomery, Prince George's and Wicomico counties in May, saying they hadn't shown that they were facing significantly more economic hardship than other jurisdictions in the state.

If adopted by the General Assembly, the work group's recommendations would increase the chances for approval of future requests. Under the recommendations, the state would consider a county's history of exceeding the maintenance of effort level, whether there is agreement about the need for a waiver between the county government and the local school board, the breadth of the economic downturn and whether state aid was reduced.

The added criteria probably would have affected Montgomery County's waiver request. In that case, the county government agreed with the school board on a $79.5 million waiver, and the county has a long history of exceeding the maintenance of effort level.

County governments in Montgomery and Prince George's wound up asking their school systems to pay costs they don't usually pay, a maneuver that only artificially satisfied the law, according to an opinion issued last month by the state attorney general. Both counties face potential penalties of tens of millions of dollars.

State lawmakers expressed sympathy.

"We just feel that, the financial world as it is, obviously local governments are hurting, and we want to make sure the state board has appropriate criteria to make a decision," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore and Howard counties), the work group's co-chairman.

Montgomery's school board president viewed the recommendations cautiously.

"Someone has to look out for the interests of the public school system, and I don't want any changes that will make it too easy for county governments to get off the hook," said Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase).

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