- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2003

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s 24 public school systems will get a big boost in state aid this year, despite serious financial problems that forced the governor and legislature to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget.

The estimated $147.8 million in new “Thornton” money will mean smaller class sizes, more computers and new textbooks for many of the 860,000 students expected to attend public schools this year. It will also help pay for raises for teachers in some counties.

The boost in state aid is the second step in Maryland’s ambitious six-year plan to increase funding for public schools by $1.3 billion. The law passed two years ago — officially known as the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act — is commonly referred to simply as Thornton for Alvin Thornton, the chairman of the commission that proposed the huge increase in state aid.

With local governments struggling with their own financial problems, school officials say the money could not have come at a better time.

“It was really crucial for us this year,” said Karen Salmon, superintendent of schools in Talbot County. “We are a county that benefited greatly from the Thornton funding.”

The decision by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the General Assembly to fully fund the second step of the law meant additional aid of about $3.8 million for Talbot, which has about 4,500 students. “For a small system, that’s a lot of money,” Miss Salmon said.

Washington County, with almost 20,000 students, will get an additional $6 million, said Elizabeth Morgan, the county school superintendent.

“A lot of the public doesn’t realize how important these appropriations are. Adequate funding has been a major issue for some time in this state,” Miss Morgan said.

Washington County used some of the additional money to try to get ready for a mandate to improve student performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“The Thornton money has enabled us to purchase textbooks. It’s enabled us to keep class sizes where they were,” Miss Morgan said. “It’s enabled us to do some teacher training.”

The additional money helped some counties keep commitments to raise pay or improve health benefits for teachers.

Marlene Feldman, a Dorchester County school spokeswoman, said the county expects about $1.9 million in Thornton money for its school system of about 5,000 students. The board decided to use the money for salaries and to help pay health care costs because when school officials looked at their priorities, those two were at the top of the list.

“We do compete with counties with higher pay scales in commuting distance,” Miss Feldman said.

The county was able to give 6 percent salary increases plus step increases for eligible employees and put more money into health care because of the Thornton funds.

“We’ve retained more people this year than in years past. That’s important to us,” Miss Feldman said. “Dealing with a lot of turnover is very difficult.”

Even with the additional money, the county was not able to begin implementing plans for all-day kindergarten, another priority.

Thornton funding enabled Carroll County to give teachers a 3 percent pay increase and pay for new textbooks and technology for classrooms.

“All these things we need to operate a system competitive with our surrounding counties,” said Stephen Guthrie, assistant superintendent of administration.

Without the county’s approximately $5 million in Thornton money, school officials would have had to cut back on some expenditures, Mr. Guthrie said. “Carroll County cannot afford to pick up all that locally.”

Mr. Ehrlich put money in this year’s budget to fund the Thornton law and has promised to do the same next year.

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