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Md. county leaders cast a wary eye at Kirwan education costs

Barry Glassman, Harford County executive. (The Daily Record / Tim Curtis)

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman says the Kirwan Commission education funding recommendations may have to be phased in over 15 or 20 years so state and county budgets can manage those costs. (The Daily Record / Tim Curtis)

OCEAN CITY — County leaders from around the state are being encouraged to support an education plan billed as transformative but aren’t yet being told what their costs will be or how to pay for them.

An hour-long panel discussion at the Maryland Association of Counties annual summer conference at times sounded more like an attempt to buoy enthusiasm for recommendations that once fully implemented will cost a minimum of $4 billion annually. And one county executive said the 10 year phase-in might have to be lengthened significantly in order to make it more palatable for many of the state’s 24 political subdivisions.

“We’re still nibbling around the edges (of funding formulas),” said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican who is also a member of a task force that will make funding recommendations to the full Kirwan Commission, possibly in September.

Glassman said the proposed decade-long implementation period might have to be extended.

“I’m thinking 15 or 20 years,” said Glassman.

The Kirwan Commission recommendations are being touted at the latest transformative plan to improve education and outcomes, including closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

But the program comes with a price tag equivalent to a 20 percent increase in the current state general fund budget. An undetermined portion of that will be picked up by county governments.

Maryland lawmakers are also grappling with how to pay state portions of the costs and are warning that some form of tax increase may be necessary. That increase, should it happen, would come even as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan keeps to his promise to not raise taxes in the state and as economists hint of a recession possibly by mid-2020.

Advocates say the program must go forward to prevent Maryland from falling further behind in public school education.

“Maryland is a wealthy state,” said William “Brit” Kirwan, chairman of the education commission that bears his name. “We can do this. The question is do we have the will to make it happen.”

So far, no one has identified how the plan will be paid for or the formulas that will be used to determine how funding will be doled out to counties. The goal of the recommendations, according to Kirwan, is to ensure children in every jurisdiction receive the same education.

But in doing so, the as-yet-to-be determined funding formulas have the potential to pit wealthier jurisdictions, who kick in more in state taxes but get less back, against less wealthy jurisdictions, who have more significant educational challenges.

“We’re like a middle child,” Glassman said of his county. “We’ll lose a million here but gain a million for something else over there. Counties like Montgomery County,  some tweaks could cause them to lose a lot of funding.”

Funding formulas, the county executive said, will likely create some “winners and losers.”

Ultimately, Glassman said, the counties could be responsible for picking up half of the costs. Many counties are already maxed out in terms of taxes. Some are at their maximum allowable piggyback income tax rate. Other, poorer counties are not able to impose higher taxes on their residents, Glassman said.

“I have Eastern Shore and Western Maryland Counties who have no real ability to tax,” Glassman said. “They don’t have anything left to go to. They would just price their citizens out of whack because they can’t add to property or income (taxes) because they’re poor counties to start with. So, I’ve got some got some counties saying, ‘We’re just not going to do it.'”

Montgomery County Councilman Craig Rice, a Democrat who is also a member of the Kirwan Commission, said the panel is trying to set up an equitable set of formulas.

“This is not just about spending more money,” said Rice. “No one on this Kirwan Commission believes that it’s just about putting more money into education. That is not what our recommendations are.”

But Rice said despite budgetary realities, local governments are going to have to “buckle down” and implement the recommendations. Finding an equitable funding formula is “no easy thing,” he said.

“There is no formula that balances a Worcester to a Somerset to a Howard to a Prince George’s to a Montgomery to an Allegany,” said Rice. There is no one funding formula that is exactly right for everyone. We know that.”

But Rice added that the commission “would not support something that pitted people against each other and made winners and losers.”


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