Appeals court hears city schools funding debate

Sun Staff

Lawyers for the state, Baltimore schools and education advocates converged on Maryland's highest court yesterday to present arguments in a case that could deal a major financial blow to the state -- if a Baltimore judge's ruling concerning state dollars for city schools is allowed to stand.

At issue was what actions Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan ordered the state to take in the 74-page ruling he issued in August, in which he said Baltimore students are still being denied an adequate education and that the state had "unlawfully underfunded" city schools by $400 million to $800 million since 2000.

Lawyers for the state argued before the Court of Appeals in Annapolis that Kaplan exceeded his authority by specifying the range of money owed to the schools; ordering that state and city officials increase funding by at least $30 million this year; and recommending that state lawmakers speed up state education payments to the city.

But lawyers for education advocates contended that Kaplan's ruling gave the state the flexibility to decide how to comply with his finding that the city schools were underfunded. They also argued that the state should not be permitted to appeal the ruling because it was an "interim" decision that did not contain final orders for the state, and that only a "final" order can be challenged.

The judges' decision on the appeal could hinge on whether they think Kaplan's ruling directed the state to take specific actions, lawyers on both sides said. Several judges quizzed the attorneys on what they thought Kaplan was asking for.

"I'm not sure what that means," Judge Alan M. Wilner said of the range in dollar amounts in Kaplan's ruling. "How is this the final judgment? What is it the state has been asked to do?"

Yesterday's hourlong hearing was scheduled to give lawyers on both sides of Bradford v. Maryland an opportunity to argue the finer legal points of the ruling, which was prompted by budget cuts the school system made in the midst of a financial crisis last school year. Kaplan oversees the decade-old school-funding lawsuit filed on behalf of city students and joined by the city and Baltimore school board.

The state's attorney contended that Kaplan should have limited himself to deciding whether education in city schools was inadequate -- as defined in the state constitution -- and that he should have refrained from ordering the state to take certain steps to address the situation.

"The court cannot issue an order binding anyone to pay money to the city schools," state Assistant Attorney General Liz Kameen told the panel of seven judges. "That would be a violation of the separation of powers."

Lawyers for the Bradford plaintiffs argued that Kaplan's ruling left many unanswered questions and should not be challenged now. They also said the judge made specific suggestions about funding only after determining that the state had failed to comply with a similar order he issued in 2000.

The state argues it complied with that directive to provide $2,000 to $2,600 in extra state dollars per city student. School officials and education advocates dispute the state's calculations.

In addition to arguing that Kaplan's order was "extraordinary" and outside his authority, Kameen also said the judge ignored "substantial evidence" that the school system was managing its money irresponsibly.

"Because of that culture of complacency, there's money leaking out of Baltimore City schools. Some would say 'hemorrhaging out,' " Kameen said, adding that more state money is not the solution.

Warren Weaver, a lawyer for the school board, countered with a different portrayal -- one of a system that has worked hard to become fiscally accountable. He urged the judges to remember that the schools' financial problems occurred while they were being underfunded.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said after the hearing that management problems "persist today," and gave fresh examples of what she considered mistakes by the current city school administration, including $800,000 in federal grants recently forfeited by the system.

Jeffery N. Grotsky, the system's chief of staff, said the administration abandoned the grants for career and technology programs because it would have had to spend its own money first and seek reimbursement. Last school year, the system froze such spending amid the financial crisis.

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