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Counties, school boards hope to avoid more cuts

ANNAPOLIS — With targets on their backs for more cuts in state aid, Maryland counties and school boards are trying to show legislators that they’ve trimmed their own operations to the bone as state deficits continue and federal stimulus dollars dry up.

Like the state government, counties and school boards have foregone most raises, furloughed employees, cut back expenses and entered into joint procurement agreements for everything from electricity and copy paper to cars and tracks.

In exchange for their efforts, representatives of local governments and school system told state lawmakers Thursday they want to avoid further cuts in state aid and asked to change some requirements in state law that unnecessarily cost them money.

“We know we are in serious jeopardy due to the expiration of that (federal) funding,” John Woolums of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education told a workgroup of House and Senate leaders.

Carl Roberts, representing the state school superintendents, said negotiations on teachers’ salaries are expected to be particularly difficult.

“We expect many of these negotiations will lead to impasse” with the unions, Roberts said. There’s no telling how a new arbitration board yet to be appointed by the governor would handle the contract problems.

The school systems were particularly opposed to the state’s allowing local governments to reduce maintenance-of-effort requirements that force counties to give local school systems the same amount or more as they did in the previous year.

At the urging of House Ways & Means Chair Sheila Hixson, the Joint Legislative Workgroup to Study State, County and Municipal Fiscal Relationships recommended the Legislature pass a compromise on maintenance of effort for schools. A similar measure failed on the final day of this year’s General Assembly session.

This year, the state Board of Education granted waivers of maintenance of effort for Montgomery and Wicomico counties, largely following the guidelines in the compromise.

The new factors allowing the board to grant a waiver aid include a broad economic downturn, a county’s history of giving more school funding, reductions in state aid, and an agreement between the county and the school board on aid reductions.

The workgroup of the Legislature’s fiscal leaders kept its hands off one of the largest issues putting the state and counties at odds: making counties pick up some funding of teacher pensions. Del. Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, the House chair of the workgroup, said they would leave that issue to a special pension commission due to make recommendations by the end of the month.

Candace Donohue, government relations director for the Maryland Municipal League, said that incorporated cities and towns are “beginning to see cuts in services,” such as turning off every other street light on local roads. The town and municipalities pretty much have squeezed out the efficiencies they could find, she said.

MML and the Maryland Association of Counties both are pushing again to lift a requirement that notices of meetings, changes in laws, and other official actions are published in local newspapers.

“Our residents do not read legal ads in the back of the newspaper,” said Cathy Drzyzgula, a council member from Gaithersburg.

The change is opposed by the newspaper industry.

The two associations also are pushing to remove the requirement to update comprehensive master plans every six years. The costly process would better be done every 10 years, after the Census, they maintain.

Andrew Klein, budget chief for Baltimore City, said the city also is trying to change its spending culture as a means of coping with a $121 million shortfall this year, and another one expected next year.

The city and the local school board are splitting funding for school crossing guards. And the city is searching for ways to save energy by shutting off the hot water in city bathrooms, something Klein said the General Assembly had yet to do in its own buildings.

Cecil County had reduced its indoor temperature guidelines, Budget Director Craig Whiteford said, helping it to achieve a 10 percent reduction in fossil fuel use.

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