Schools' new budget battle
Once again, Maryland schools are facing budget cuts. And once again, Baltimore would be hurt disproportionately. If proposals pending in the General Assembly are approved, the city would have to cut at least $12 million out of the budget the school board approved last week.
Late Friday night, the state Senate's budget and tax committee surprised everyone in the education world. Rather than adopting its subcommittee's recommendations for school funding as expected, it passed a modified version including deeper cuts. It would fund GCEI at 60 percent next year, rather than the 100 percent pledged by the governor, and use the remaining 40 percent (or about $50 million) to cover planned school construction costs. That alone would require the city to cut $8.8 million -- meaning more job cuts at North Avenue or cuts to schools.
Then, the Senate budget committee would limit in fiscal years 2011 and 2012 the annual inflation increases to school districts that were supposed to return next year. It was the capping of these inflation increases that led to the $50 million-plus shortfalls in the city schools for each of the past two years. Continuing the cap would lead to huge shortfalls again the next two years. It would save the state an estimated $95 million in fiscal year 2011.
I asked Gov. O'Malley about the committee's vote today at Frederick Douglass High School, where he and several other public officials were on hand for the opening of a computer lab sponsored by Verizon. He said he hadn't seen the specifics yet, but he was concerned about any change to GCEI. However, he said several lawmakers don't believe that the state should be guaranteeing inflation increases to any agencies -- school districts included -- until the economy improves. He's inclined to agree. He didn't think schools would be hurt over the next two years because of the stimulus money -- but, as I've noted before, the stimulus dollars come with strings attached, while the money an inflation increase would bring would go into the general fund.
The committee's version of the budget, which now goes to the full Senate for a vote and is likely to pass, also includes a provision from the House of Delegates' bill that would change the formula governing who pays for private school placement for special education students. The state now pays 80 percent of the cost and districts pay 20 percent. The House changed the ratio to 70-30, which would cost the city $3 million next year. The Senate committee and the House would also require 17 districts -- Baltimore not among them -- that received overpayment this year through a budget error to repay the money, contrary to a promise from the governor that they wouldn't have to.
Once the full Sentate approves its budget bill, the House and Senate versions will go to a conference committee.