Montgomery County, Md. officials are fighting a $1.1 billion five-year funding plan proposed by a state-appointed panel, which they say will shortchange wealthier school districts while increasing state aid to less affluent and poorer performing areas like Prince George’s County and Baltimore city.
“Our objections boil down to a single point: The funding formula proposed by the Thornton Commission adversely affects Montgomery County schools,” said schools spokesman Brian Porter.
The Thornton Commission was appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, two years ago to reduce funding inequities among school systems and ensure they have enough money to meet state achievement standards. Its chairman, Alvin Thornton, a former Prince George’s County school board chairman, says the increase in funding is desperately needed to maintain recognized standards, like the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).
Mr. Thornton also said it is important to give out more state aid based on a county’s wealth. “It is a responsibility of the state to wealth-equalize, and Maryland does not wealth-equalize adequately,” he said, adding that most states around the country require at least 90 percent of state aid to schools to be wealth-equalized.
Under the Thornton plan, 80 percent of state aid will be distributed based on a school district’s wealth, compared to 67 percent of state aid currently dispersed this way.
It is this point specifically that Montgomery County officials oppose, although they are quick to add that they generally agree with the Thornton Commission’s plan to increase state aid for schools.
“The overall recommendations do provide a good beginning for directing state support to students impacted by poverty, ESOL [English as a second language] and special needs,” Mr. Porter said.
Maryland is expected to spend $2.9 billion on schools this year, and over the next five years this amount is expected to increase by $700 million for factors like rising student enrollment. The $1.1 billion increase the Thornton Commission is requesting is in addition to this, and will be phased in beginning with about $140 million in the first year.
Under the plan, Montgomery would get around $5 million more than current law requires in 2003 and $74 million over the five-year period, while Prince George’s would get $41.5 million more in 2003 and $305.8 million over five years. Rural counties in Maryland and Baltimore city also would get large increases under the plan.
“We are asking for a reasonable down payment in the first year I do not believe that my state will be able to maintain the standards set for children unless it does what the commission says should be done,” Mr. Thornton said.
Montgomery County officials said it is unfair to judge all students in the county based on its overall wealth because the county has half the ESOL students in the state, and 22 percent of the children impacted by poverty.
“The Thornton Commission recommendations shortchange [poor and immigrant] students because they happen to live in a county where the aggregate wealth though not their own is greater,” wrote schools Superintendent Jerry Weast in a letter issued jointly with County Council President Steven Silverman and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
County officials have proposed their own, more expensive plan, asking the state for $165 million the first year, with 44 percent going to Montgomery.
“We are interested in building on the commission’s recommendations by ensuring the state invests more money on targeted populations in ESOL, special education and students who are at risk of failure because of poverty,” said Mr. Silverman.
“Our newest citizens have to be grabbed and held up before they get caught up in the poverty cycle,” said Delegate Jean B. Cryor, Montgomery County Republican.
Lawmakers, who will wrestle with the issue at the upcoming General Assembly session, agreed that the state needs more funds for education, but said the amount the commission requested for the first year is unrealistic, given the current recession.
“There are no funds for it . To send a package through without any available funding seems irresponsible,” Mrs. Cryor said.
She added that Mr. Glendening has not indicated he would provide any extra funding for education this year.
As a member on the commission, Mrs. Cryor cast one of the two “no” votes against the report, along with Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, Montgomery County Democrat.
Mr. Thornton said the state has a responsibility to fund schools so they can maintain standards. “I believe we not only have a political issue here, we have a potentially legal issue. Once we create standards, the law says we must fund that performance expectation,” he said, adding that school districts could fight the state in court for a greater share of state aid.
Counties that would gain most from this formula, like Prince George’s, argue it is important that the state fund the commission’s recommendations because it would help them meet long-standing needs.
“While we are not denying that Montgomery County has legitimate concerns, the recommendations will be of great benefit to us,” said Iris T. Metts, superintendent of Prince George’s County schools.
She said the extra funds would mean the county could help the large number of non-English speaking students, as well as help the school system carry out its reform agenda to reduce class sizes and increase literacy goals.
Some state officials also refute Montgomery’s claim that it will not get enough funds for special-needs students.
Tina Bjarekull, deputy state superintendent for finance, said Montgomery currently receives $15 million from the total $34.2 million given by the state for the limited-English-proficiency program.
“When the Thornton Commission program goes forward, Montgomery will still get at least $15 million. Frankly, I am a little bit disturbed about Montgomery saying it will get less money,” she said.
Mrs. Cryor said she also had other reservations about the report, including the lack of strong recommendations on issues like special education and students who speak English as a second language.