To Educators, “Doomsday” Budget a Disaster

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – Though supporters praised Gov. Martin O’Malley and the legislature for an overhaul of year-to-year education funding requirements, education leaders are calling for a special session to address gaps in school funding after the “doomsday” budget became law Monday.

In the budget’s current form, local governments will receive $512 million less from the state than previously expected, most of which would directly affect education spending.

“The doomsday budget is a losing budget for students and educators … it is a pill that Marylanders should not be forced to swallow, especially when more responsible avenues are available,” said Sean Johnson, managing director of government relations for the Maryland State Education Association.

In its current form, the budget reduces or eliminates state aid in a number of areas, many of which deal with education spending. For example, $70 million in cuts would come from a reduction in per-pupil spending, which would drop from $6,761 to $6,650.

Though O’Malley has been adamant in his disapproval of the budget, some state officials, like Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Calvert, view the reductions as a motivational tool for lawmakers to move forward with plans to raise taxes.

“The doomsday budget was intentional, to give people courage to vote for revenues and keep the state moving in a progressive way,” Miller said.

Miller added that O’Malley will almost certainly call for a special session to address the funding issues and replace the doomsday budget.

But some Republicans, who argue the state needs to spend less, say cuts won’t affect the quality of education in Maryland, which was ranked first in education in the nation by Education Week for the fourth year in a row.

Delegate Michael D. Smigiel, R-Cecil, said the money lost in the revenue package would only affect planned increases in education funding, as this year’s budget — without revenue increases — already provides more money for schools than in previous years.

“O’Malley’s making Maryland seem like Calcutta, with uneducated children running around in the streets … (he is) trying to put fear into the public that the education system is going to fail,” Smigiel said.

The governor’s office disagrees.

“Clearly Smigiel is okay with severe cuts to education and higher education, which will lead to increases in tuition. His comments indicate that he is 100 percent OK with those raises. We are not,” said Raquel Guillory, communications director for O’Malley. “There are significant cuts to education in the doomsday budget. Maybe he’s not so worried because the cuts would be in Baltimore and Prince George’s County. All cuts and all jurisdictions are important to us.”

Education leaders say the cuts would hurt.

“There is no way we could take that kind of cut without it directly affecting the classroom … our county’s budget is built along certain assumptions on state aid,” said Dana Tofig, public information director for Montgomery County Public Schools.

Almost $129 million in cuts will come from the elimination of the Geographic Cost of Education Index grants, designed to allocate more school funding based on location.

Much of the geographic funding goes to keeping teacher salaries competitive in areas with higher costs of living, but a small portion goes to materials, supplies and energy costs associated with certain parts of the state.

In addition, more than 10 percent of state library budgets would be cut entirely.

The highly-debated shift in teacher pensions from the state to local governments was not included in the completed budget. However, a special session would almost certainly include the pension shift on the agenda.

Universities and community colleges will also see less state aid in their budgets, with millions in cuts to public and private higher education and grants.

“A $50 million cut would no doubt result in financial aid reductions, programmatic cuts, student service curtailments, and staff layoffs. It would also dictate an in-state, undergraduate tuition increase significantly higher than the 3 percent included in the governor’s proposed budget,” said University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan, in a letter to the state university system community.

(Note: Capital News Service is operated by the University of Maryland, the flagship of the state university system.)