Senate Committee Cuts Funding for Kirwan Recommendations, Chancellor’s Office

Some Maryland senators want to force a conversation about an ambitious decade-long education funding effort.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee voted unanimously Thursday afternoon on a $46-billion-plus budget plan that constrains funding for the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission to current revenues available to the state. The Senate plan, which will reach the chamber floor on Monday night and will be debated later next week, sets aside $225 million in the 2020 fiscal year for Kirwan priorities including expanded kindergarten, teacher pay raises and additional special education funding.

The House budget plan, which passed that chamber Thursday morning by a 124-14 vote, set aside about $320 million for the Kirwan priorities.

The Kirwan Commission, formally known as the Commission for Innovation and Excellence in Education, called for an additional $1.1 billion in spending for public schools over the next two years.

The Senate budget plan would direct an additional $570.5 million over the two years, with additional funding available if lawmakers pass a bill to collect taxes from online marketplace facilitators such as Amazon.com.

As members of the Senate committee were voting, they received a letter from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and Budget Secretary David Brinkley expressing concerns about the cost of the Kirwan recommendations.

“I don’t think there’s a member on this committee that wouldn’t like to fully fund every single possible thing for Kirwan this year, that’s really what we’d like to do,” Budget and Taxation Chair Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) said, noting Hogan’s concerns. “…We’ve got to be able to pay for it responsibly. So I really think this is a good move for our committee to make.”

The committee made multiple changes to the appropriations levels and funding streams for Kirwan priorities over the next two years, which will also force changes to SB 1030, the so-called Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

The letters from Hogan and Brinkley reached a combined six pages in length, expressing concerns.

“I would like to think that we are all committed to working together as a team and we struggle to cope with the magnitude of the undertaking that would be required to fund the commission’s recommendations,” Brinkley wrote. “But the haste with which you are attempting to pass this legislation leads me instead to the conclusion that you are merely seeking to cope with short-term political pressure and are unwilling to expend the political capital necessary to address tough questions regarding how we fund these challenges.”

Committee Vice Chair Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said differences between the House and Senate versions of Kirwan funding would allow lawmakers to explore a “grand compromise” through a conference committee. He said lawmakers shouldn’t make the same fiscal mistake that derailed the promised investments of the Thornton Commission, which set education funding formulas in the early 2000s.

“We made promises that we had a very challenging time funding over time. The promises got ahead of where the money was,” Ferguson said.

The Senate committee’s voting session came hours after the House voted 124-14 to approve that chamber’s version of a 2020 budget bill.

“They’ve gone off the rails,” House Appropriations Chair Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) said with a sly smile Thursday evening when asked about the Senate committee’s Kirwan funding proposal. “That’s really low.”

McIntosh said she hopes a budget conference committee would agree to the higher figures proposed in the House.

Earlier in the day, Hogan blasted the House spending plan.

“The egregious cuts outlined in the budget that passed today ― including over $16 million in cuts to funding that would enhance school safety, increase accountability, and provide better opportunities for our kids ― are the height of hypocrisy and a disservice to our students, teachers, and parents,” Hogan said in a statement. “These cuts include: the Safe Schools Maryland Tip Line, which is critical to keeping our classrooms safe; the Office of Education Accountability, which is providing transparency and exposing wrongdoing in local school systems; funding for underserved children to attend innovative public charter schools; the bipartisan BOOST program; and our proposal to expand the Promise Scholarship program to allow qualifying students to get a college education.”

The Senate committee differed from the House and chose to maintain $300,000 in funding for the tip line and maintain funding for the BOOST program, which provides scholarships to private schools for low-income students. Funding for the Office of Accountability is contingent upon passage of an administration bill – which has yet to be voted on in committee – in both chambers’ budget proposals so far. The Promise Plus scholarship program was also cut in the Senate committee, which noted that the first scholarship awards would be given in the next fiscal year.

Chancellor’s budget cut

The committee also approved language cutting $1 million from the university System of Maryland office and restricted an additional $200,000 until the office submits a report to the budget committees on any outside income Chancellor Robert Caret received in the 2017, 2018 or 2019 fiscal years.

The cuts come after the Associated Press revealed earlier this month that Caret had sent an email in 2017 to officials at other universities promoting university-branded bracelets produced by the Pandora jewelry company, which has its North and South American headquarters in Baltimore.

The email – thought to be the product of a hack by at least one person who received it – prompted ethics questions from Caret’s office chief of staff, who later received an unsatisfactory job evaluation that was later rescinded. Many of facts surrounding the email were put forward in an anonymous letter sent to lawmakers last month.

Ferguson said he was troubled by retaliation against the employee and differences between the explanations offered to lawmakers by the chancellor’s office and the timeline of events pieced together by the letter and other documents.

“It is a clear example of governance run amok,” Ferguson said after the vote. “The system seems to believe it is a private corporation and not a holder of public trust.”

A response from the University System of Maryland was not immediately available Thursday evening.

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