Blair Lee, III, former acting governor of Maryland, had one point to make to the court: Don't get the state too deeply involved in school financing, he said, because, "He who pays the piper calls the tune."
Lee took the stand today as one of the last defense witnesses in Somerset v. Hornbeck, a landmark suit that could redistribute hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid to local schools.
One of a wave of court challenges to local financing that has occurred across the country in the last few years, the suit alleges that Maryland's methods of financing education are unconstitutional and discriminatory and pits four of the state's poorest school districts against the state and a powerful ally -- Montgomery County.
Since the trial began in September, 93 witnesses have dissected the state's educational system, and many of them, like Lee, have given testimony suggesting that it should not be tampered with.
Montgomery County officials are among those opposed to changing the state's methods for financing education. County officials contend that a decision against Maryland could cost the county $36 million of the $70 million it gets each year from the state.
Earlier, the county entered the suit on the side of the defendant. "It's going to cost us half a million dollars in legal fees. But we think the stakes are so great that it's worth it," said one man who lobbies for the county in Annapolis.
The plaintiffs contend that Maryland's current school-finance system is unjust because it relies heavily on local property taxes in the state's 23 counties and the city of Baltimore.
Poorer counties often are unable to raise as much money per student as wealthier counties -- even if the poorer ones apply a higher tax rate. In the 1976-77 school year, the plaintiffs said, Montgomery County raised $1,622 per student while Somerset County, one of those bringing the suit, raised only $480.
This system "discriminates against and disadvantages all students attending public schools in the state's financially distressed school districts by providing them lesser and inadequate educational opportunity," the suit said.
Somerset County could afford only 56.5 teachers per 1,000 students, while Worchester County, with a far higher level of wealth, provided almost 50 percent more, or 28.4 per 1,000. "Students in the plaintiff districts are taught by less competitively selected, lesser trained, less experienced and less certified professional staff than in the affluent districts," the suit said.
The suit, which seeks no specific acts of redress, merely asks that the current system be declared unconstitutional. But school administrators assume that such a declaration would result in radical changes in the way state aid is disbursed.
Former governor Lee, a Silver Spring resident, told the court yesterday that people in the county have traditionally been willing to pay high costs for good education.
But he said that during his tenure on various educational commissions, he often found that the poorer counties simply didn't care. "County commissioners just said their people didn't hold with it. . . . They wanted their kids to have the core of basic education but no frills," he said.
A decision on the case is expected in the spring.