Leggett, Baker attack Ehrlich on lack of commitment to school funding plan

By John Wagner and Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 10:27 PM

The two Democrats likely to lead Montgomery and Prince George's counties next year criticized former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on Wednesday for refusing to commit to an education plan that would send tens of millions of additional dollars to those jurisdictions.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has promised to continue funding the program, which next year would send $127 million to 13 school systems where education costs are particularly high because of needy students, the cost of living and other factors. Montgomery is set to receive nearly $32 million in aid, and Prince George's would get nearly $39 million.

Not getting the money "will have a devastating impact," Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said at a news conference at Seabrook Elementary School in Lanham, where he was joined by presumptive Prince George's County Executive-elect Rushern L. Baker III (D).

On Wednesday, Ehrlich (R) largely stood by comments in an Associated Press interview last week, saying it was too soon to tell whether the state could afford the initiative. "If the dollars are there, we'll take a look at it," he said, adding that "this election is about transparency and being upfront with people."

The sparring about school funding came as the governor's race showed signs of accelerating in the Washington suburbs.

President Obama is scheduled to appear Thursday with O'Malley and other Democrats at a rally at Bowie State University in Prince George's, and Ehrlich will host a luncheon for Montgomery County Women for Ehrlich. Ehrlich will also air his campaign's first TV ads in the expensive Washington area market, arriving two weeks behind O'Malley.

Ehrlich said Wednesday that his standing in the heavily Democratic Washington region has been hurt by O'Malley's ads, which he blamed for his slippage in a few recent statewide polls that showed O'Malley leading.

"That gets fixed tomorrow," Ehrlich told a business group in Baltimore County, where he is running much stronger against O'Malley than in the Washington region.

Thornton funding

Ehrlich, a former congressman from Baltimore County, dismissed Leggett's and Baker's efforts as partisan Democratic politics, saying that O'Malley "knows he needs the Washington suburbs because he's getting hammered up here."

Ehrlich aides later distributed a document to reporters detailing record education funding increases under Ehrlich and advances in student progress in Montgomery and Prince George's during his four years in office, which ended after O'Malley defeated him in 2006.

Leggett said Ehrlich's stance on the "geographic cost of education index" is "not the way to endear oneself" to Washington area voters.

Leggett said Ehrlich had suggested the spending cuts "so cavalierly, without thinking of the ramifications of what that means. That is an irresponsible position."

Seabrook Elementary, the Prince George's school where Baker and Leggett held their news conference, has shown academic progress in recent years.

O'Malley did not provide the geographic funds when he submitted his first state budget in 2007. In successive years he increased the funding, and in the past two years he relied on federal stimulus dollars to fully fund it at $126 million. Baltimore, another heavily Democratic jurisdiction, is also a major beneficiary of the initiative.

The geographic aid is a discretionary part of the Thornton school funding law that required the state to increase funding for kindergarten through 12th grade by an estimated $1.3 billion a year. A key goal is to bolster low-performing systems and try to narrow the gap between African American students and others.

At O'Malley's suggestion, in 2007 lawmakers reined in projected inflationary costs in Thornton, which Ehrlich characterized Wednesday as a cut to the program.

Counties' shortfalls

Coming on the heels of one of the toughest budget seasons in four decades in Montgomery and Prince George's, the specter of reductions in anticipated state aid to education is particularly unwelcome.

Officials in both counties are grappling with potential budget shortfalls. In Montgomery, Leggett said he is eyeing a budget gap of about $145 million; in Prince George's, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said that the budget gap is about $50 million because of rising health-care, pension and other costs but that he did not have complete projections about other gaps between revenue and income.

School funding is a huge part of both counties' spending plans, making up about half of the budgets.

In Montgomery, the county school system has a budget of about $2.1 billion for 144,000 students. In Prince George's, the budget is about $1.6 billion for 128,000 students, although the school board had sought about $37 million more from the county for the school system.

Each county's charter requires a balanced budget by the time final spending decisions are made in the spring, but preliminary work has begun on the budgets for the fiscal year that will begin July 1.

'We will not stand for it'

The schools systems in both counties experienced spending cuts this year, and in Prince George's that also meant teacher furloughs - something Baker has pledged to end.

"If education is our number one priority, then cuts to education at any point will hurt us," he said. "We will not stand for it."

Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large), chairman of the Prince George's school board, said the cuts could hamper the school system's attempts at improving student achievement. "We cannot accept any cuts to education, particularly at a time when we are talking about reform efforts," she said.

Prince George's Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who attended the news conference along with several school board members, decried the prospect of losing state funds.

"In a time when we are trying to educate more students, we just cannot have another cut of $39 million in Prince George's County," Hite said. "The thought of those monies going away would be devastating for us," he said.

wagnerj@washpost.com spivackm@washpost.com

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