Tempers flared in the Anne Arundel County Council’s chambers on Monday when council members sparred with a school official over a $5 million bill they thought was already paid.
The state Board of Education sent county officials a letter in August saying they still owed the school system $5 million to meet the minimum state-required payment to schools, also known as the maintenance of effort.
The news came as a shock to council members, who said they thought the issue of maintenance of effort had been squared away during budget discussions in May.
The solution to the missing $5 million at the time was to pull the needed money from the school system’s projects fund. It was one of several compromises made to balance the budget. Anne Arundel Community College officials also had to pull from the college’s funds to balance their budget.
But the state board—and now the school board—are saying that solution isn’t adequate. In a letter to the county dated Aug. 28, the state Board of Education called the county’s remedy “double-counting.”
After that letter, the county had 60 days to resolve the $5 million hole, with a looming deadline of Oct. 26.
The county’s Chief Administrative Officer John Hammond said the county could pull from its own fund balance, but some funds have been earmarked to resolve overtime payments for the county's fire department. Instead, he endorsed a proposed bill, which would reinforce the agreement reached in May. But he said it was a solution that would only work if the school system acquiesced to it.
On Monday night, School system’s Chief Operating Officer Alex Szachnowicz made it clear that the county Board of Education does not endorse the bill. However, he said school officials are available to discuss other solutions.
County Council members didn’t take that news lightly.
Councilman Jamie Benoit (D-4th District), of Crownsville, said the board had “unnecessarily politicized education” in the county, and said rejecting this bill would have consequences.
“I'm guessing that since you won’t acquiesce, we will find $5 million, but it'll probably be the last $5 million the Board of Ed gets in a long time,” Benoit said. “I hope you all are ready to explain to the students why this thing is happening this year, the year after, and the year after that.”
Councilman John Grasso (R-2nd District) said he would lead a charge during the next budget year to inflict consequences on the school system.
"If you folks don't come up and man up to your agreement, there's going to be some serious consequences the next budget around, and I can bet you for sure that I'll be the one leading the charge on that," Grasso said.
Council Chairman Derek Fink asked Szachnowicz why the school system didn’t simply pull from their fund balance to cover the missing $5 million. Fink said Anne Arundel Community College pulled from its fund balance during budget season to help balance the budget, which Fink said “helped us out.”
Szachnowicz replied that there were a number of concerns he had with the bill, but Fink interrupted him.
“I don’t see how we could pass this and start working together,” Fink said.
After the meeting, school system spokesman Bob Mosier said school officials want to find a solution that agrees with the newly revised maintenance of effort laws. He said regardless of what was discussed in May, the state Board of Education is the judge of what is an adequate solution.
“We are more than willing to have a discussion so we can get to a place that meets the law as it’s constructed,” Mosier said. “There is zero desire on the part of the school system to fan any flames, or engage in political theater.”
The county council voted to hold Bill 77-11 until the next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 15—just 11 days before the deadline set by the state to find a solution.