- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 1, 2001

BALTIMORE (AP) A commission studying school funding in Maryland will recommend giving five counties with property tax caps some flexibility to override the caps to raise money for public schools.
The decision was made Thursday as the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence approved the final draft of a report it will submit to Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the General Assembly.
"The tax caps are insidious," said state Sen. Robert R. Neall, Anne Arundel County Republican and a member of the commission. "If this recession continues, a lot of jurisdictions are going to have trouble meeting their share of education funding, and they are going to be blocked [from raising further money] by the tax caps."
But the recommendation is sure to arouse strong opposition from tax-limit advocates in Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Prince George's, Talbot and Wicomico counties, the five that have tax caps.
"This flies in the face of a lot of voters, and that could undermine support for the commission's broader goals," said Tom Dernoga, a tax-limit activist from Prince George's County.
The tax-cap recommendation adds another note of controversy to a report that already is expected to be a contentious issue at the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 9.
The Thornton report, named for the chairman of the commission, Alvin Thornton, will be a major issue at the session, and "the battle lines are already drawn," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Allegany County Democrat.
The commission also is recommending changes in the formula for distributing state aid to local school districts, along with a $1.1 billion increase in school aid over the next five years. Legislative leaders say there will be little, if any, additional aid approved next year because of fiscal problems brought about by the national recession.
"I have one very strong group that wants to put the Thornton Commission formula into law with what they call a down payment," Mr. Taylor said, adding that the move will be opposed by another strong group that does not like the new formula.
Commission members also voted Thursday to require all school districts to provide all-day kindergarten for every eligible student, a concept they had included in the report months ago.
All counties and the city of Baltimore would get more money under the commission's recommendation, including greater assistance for special education students. Poorer school districts would get much larger increases than more affluent counties.
The state currently spends $2.9 billion a year on education, and normal budget growth would increase that figure by $133 million. The commission is recommending a total increase of about $264 million.
It would set Maryland's contribution to local systems at $5,969 per pupil, with extra funding for special education students. Funding for students who don't speak English as a first language would be based on the counties' wealth.

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