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Education

Bill Would Push Back Blueprint Deadlines, AG Says Governor Was Required to Fund Adjustment

House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Following delays in rolling out the state’s sweeping education reform plan, known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, lawmakers are considering legislation that would push back key dates to give state and local officials more time to work on critical plans.

The multi-billion dollar Blueprint seeks to overhaul the state’s educational system over the next decade. The reform plan was delayed by a year after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) vetoed the legislation in 2020, but the General Assembly overrode his veto last year.

The seven-member Accountability and Implementation Board, appointed to implement and enforce the Blueprint, convened for the first time in November, four months later than expected. The board is operating with just one staff member and $1.35 million of the $4.8 million they expect to receive this fiscal year. Without full staff and funding, the AIB has struggled to meet its deadlines outlined in statute.

Last month, the AIB proposed a new timeline that accounts for its late start and gives the board, the Maryland State Department of Education and local school systems time this summer to develop implementation plans.

House Bill 1450, heard in the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday, reflects the proposed time adjustments. It would delay the deadline for the AIB to develop a comprehensive implementation plan, which was due last month, to Dec. 1.

Under the House bill, sponsored by Appropriations Committee chair Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) and three other delegates, the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) would have to develop criteria to approve or disapprove local school systems’ implementation plans by Sept. 1 instead of April 1. And local school systems and government agencies would have to submit their Blueprint implementation plans to the AIB by March 15, 2023 instead of June 2022. The dates in the bill align with what the AIB proposed last month.

In a letter to the governor and presiding officers last month the AIB’s chair Isiah Leggett expressed concern that the $4.8 million designated to the AIB from the state’s sports betting revenue may come too late in the fiscal year for the board to be able to spend. HB 1450 would fix that by specifying that funds not used in fiscal year 2022 may be retained.

The bill would also change how the state comptroller calculates Blueprint funding by removing a reference that the education reforms would be paid for by state taxes on digital advertising.

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot’s office “has had a very difficult time determining when things come in as sales tax — whether it was online or not,” McIntosh told the Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. His office has “spent an enormous amount of time trying to figure out the exact amount of money that should go to the Blueprint,” she continued.

Under the bill, the state comptroller would instead fund the Blueprint plan with a specific percentage of the state’s overall sales and use tax revenues each year.

Blueprint funding mandates clarified by attorney general

Earlier this year, the Blueprint also faced funding disputes after legislative analysts reported that $125.5 million specifically intended for Baltimore City and Prince George’s County school systems was missing from the governor’s budget.

The funding, called the “education effort adjustment,” is meant to provide extra money to local jurisdictions that are unable to raise enough taxes to fund their local shares of education reform costs.

Legislative analysts say that the adjustment should amount to $99 million for the city of Baltimore and $26.5 million for Prince George’s County in the next fiscal year. But the governor’s office had initially said that the state was not provided with the necessary data to calculate the education effort adjustment.

Hogan recently released a supplemental budget that directs $139.9 million for programs outlined in the Blueprint, including the education effort adjustment and other programs such as training for teachers, curriculum support and expert review teams, which will visit schools and analyze the extent to which the Blueprint is being implemented.

Several hours after the announcement last month, a letter of advice from the Office of the Attorney General was sent to Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) and McIntosh, determining that the governor is required to include the education effort adjustment funding in his budget.

“The fact that there might be some factual uncertainty about the inputs for those calculations in this unusual instance does not mean that the mandate, as a whole, is invalid,” wrote chief counsel Patrick B. Hughes and assistant attorney general Thomas S. Chapman.

They referred to attorney general opinions issued in 1951 and 1975 and concluded that the legislature can establish mandatory appropriation formulas that rely on facts that are “not knowable with certainty at the formulation of the budget, including estimates.” It is clear the legislature intended to fund the education effort adjustment starting in fiscal year 2023, they continued.

They said the estimates must be rooted in “ascertainable facts,” and that the governor can revise the estimates if he disagrees with them. But the governor cannot decline to fund the mandate entirely.

“We think that, in this case, MSDE and the Governor were required to use their best and reasonable efforts to collect data to try to fulfill the statutory funding formulas as intended by the General Assembly or to make reasonable estimates or use reasonable proxies if the data could, for some reason, not be collected,” they wrote.

Although Hogan already submitted his supplemental budget proposal, the letter of advice still holds importance, Pinsky said.

“I think [the opinion] has implications beyond this funding issue,” Pinsky said in an interview. “The AG came down pretty explicitly that it was a mandate in the legislation and that the governor doesn’t have the authority to reinterpret what’s a mandate.”

“Hopefully, if an issue similar comes up in the future, the Attorney General has already opined on the issue,” Pinsky said.