Jones: We Can’t Let HBCU Suit Go to Supreme Court

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) discusses top legislative issues at the Annapolis Summit hosted by The Daily Record in Annapolis on Wednesday. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Maryland’s top legislators on Wednesday committed to attempting to find a legislative solution to a 13-year lawsuit filed against the state by alumni and supporters of Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) said lawmakers are planning to introduce a bill in an attempt to settle the case this legislative session.

“It’s important we try to get this done because we don’t want to have this go on to the Supreme Court,” Jones said Wednesday morning at the Annapolis Summit hosted by The Daily Record. “Because if you look at the makeup of the Supreme Court we have now, it never, never would happen.”

The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education first filed its case in 2006, alleging that the state had failed to dismantle vestiges of segregated higher education, including by underfunding the state’s four historically black institutions and by allowing traditionally white state universities to continue creating new degree programs that were duplicative of programs at HBCUs. A federal judge concluded that the state unnecessarily allowed program duplication and ordered negotiations on a fair settlement of the case.

After several rounds of failed court-ordered mediation to determine a remedial payment from the state, the coalition’s attorney wrote a direct appeal to lawmakers this summer.

A coalition of advocates and alumni from the HBCUs – Morgan State, Coppin State, Bowie State and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore – is willing to settle the case for a $577 million funding commitment spread over “a reasonable time period,” Michael D. Jones wrote to legislative leaders.

The Hogan administration countered with a $200 million offer, which the Legislative Black Caucus has called inadequate.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said discussions and debates about the case have been part of the conversation since he was first elected and settling the case now is imperative.

“The uncertainty has created a real challenge for us to set up our higher ed institutions for success today,” he said. “…Getting through this HBCU lawsuit and finding a way to get to a settlement I think should be a core priority moving forward. And we will work very closely with the House to do whatever we can to solve this question so that we can start having real conversations about the future of higher ed in Maryland.”

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus said at a news conference Wednesday that settling the case is a top priority for them.

Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) said he would like to have at least three pieces of legislation on the table that will touch on issues surrounding the treatment of HBCUs in the state, including measures to address program duplication and to appropriate the $577 million proposed settlement.

Sydnor, who was sworn into the Senate chamber Wednesday morning after a five-year stint in the House, has advocated for the state’s HBCUs for years and organized a rally to call for a settlement of the case in the fall.

“All of us in this room want a first-class education system here in the state of Maryland. Every last one of us,” Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s) said Wednesday. “But for me, you can’t have a first-class education system without talking about our higher education institutions. And our higher institutions include our four HBCUs here in the state of Maryland that are disproportionately not receiving what they should.”

Hannah Gaskill contributed to this report.

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