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Posted at 5:51 PM ET, 01/ 7/2011 (WashingtonPost.com)–By Valerie Ervin, Silver Spring–Maryland officials, facing a $1.6 billion state budget gap for the coming year, may try to cut support for education, mental health and other vital services and shift the cost of teacher pensions to counties. But we in Montgomery and other counties have severe budget problems of our own. One common-sense action the state could take to help us is to amend its “maintenance of effort” law for school funding.

Maryland’s law requires counties to maintain their annual school funding level, adjusted for enrollment changes, regardless of fiscal pressures or any other factor. Failure to comply means forfeiting any increase in state school aid. As chair of the Montgomery County Council’s Education Committee and a former county school board member, I strongly support the intent of the maintenance of effort law. But in practice, the law is inflexible and illogical as written.

To illustrate, the law requires funding for next year’s Montgomery school budget that is $82 million, or 5.8 percent, higher than this year’s $1.4 billion, even though we face a $300 million gap in our overall budget. The law ignores the fact that over the last decade the county has funded our schools at $577 million above the maintenance of effort requirement. It also assumes that legitimate budget savings and productivity improvements are impossible to achieve.

Even worse, the law rigidly maintains school funding at the expense of other services that are equally vital to our children. Montgomery’s budgets for police, fire, safety net and other core county services are down for the first time in more than 40 years, some by more than 20 percent. The coming year promises more of the same.

We care deeply about children not only when they are in school but also when they are not. Yet there is no state-mandated maintenance of effort funding requirement for health and human services, libraries, public safety or transportation. These and other services are also essential to our 1 million residents, especially our children.

In 2009, the State Board of Education rejected the county’s request for a waiver from the maintenance of effort law. In 2010, the board grudgingly granted a waiver but made clear its dislike of the request. Yet the county’s world-class school system, made possible by our massive financial commitment, is a huge contributor to Maryland’s No. 1 ranking for educational performance. We should not be forced to go before the state on bended knee.

The law should be amended, not abolished. It should give weight to such factors as severe fiscal pressures and a school system’s demonstrated performance levels. The financial penalty should be removed, and there should be an appeals process if a waiver request is denied. Our partners in Annapolis need to make this issue a top priority so that we can work together to protect Montgomery County’s fiscal future.

The writer, a Democrat, is president of the Montgomery County Council.