Maryland Governor Wes Moore may not remember this phrase often used in stores, " You broke it, you bought it." He would do well to think of that phrase as he chastises Maryland locals and citizens that there will have to be "discipline" in spending.
While at the annual MACO (Maryland Association of Counties) Conference, Moore said:
“As the old adage goes, ‘When the state catches a cold, local jurisdictions catch the flu,’” Moore said Saturday at his first counties’ conference as governor. “So it won’t be a surprise when I tell you that we’re facing budget shortfalls. He said the state “doesn’t just welcome partnership, we need it,” while noting that officials need to prepare to enter “a new season of challenge for Maryland.”
“It’s going to take the discipline of elected officials at the state and local levels, who commit to a spirit of partnership, even as we face some tough decisions ahead,” Moore said. “And yes, It will take the discipline of the governor — whereas I want to say “Yes” … you are going to hear some ‘No’s.’”
In urging restraint in spending as Maryland approaches 2024, the governor said: “This will be a season of discipline, and our choices must reflect that.” (Quotes Courtesy of The Baltimore Sun)
It's interesting because when Moore took over from Maryland's previous Governor, the state had a $5.5 billion surplus. Of course, Moore blames a shrinking state economy for the current deficit. He claims our economy shrank while surrounding states' economies grew. And he will hold himself and the spendthrift Democrat controlled Legislature blameless.
The Governor offered no ideas for solving the problem, neither cutting spending nor increasing taxes. He does plan to appoint a chief performance officer to monitor government spending efficiency at the state and local levels. A May job posting listed the position’s annual salary range at $126,635 to $153,314.
More bureaucracy, more money, and more intrusion on local governance.
The rest of Moore's speech contained a mix of finger pointing at the previous administration and pie in the sky solutions such as raging wages for workers, huge capital projects and bringing industry to the State. Apparently, he is not aware that citizens have recently been fleeing the state and its cities to escape high taxes and high crime.
For the local official, the county commissioner or council member, the speech must be baffling. While the Governor preaches about cutting expenditures, he supports initiatives that will cost counties and taxpayers billions.
One such initiative is the Blueprint for Maryland's Future.
As local officials began creating their budgets this year, many faced the added burden of costs associated with the Blueprint for Maryland's Future, an education boondoggle that will cost the State an additional $3.8 billion per year for the next 10 years. It expands access to pre-K and raises teacher pay. It also boosts specific spending on children experiencing poverty. The cost of the plan has been raised by $1.6 billion over the next five years due to an additional 110,000 students in that category1. All of these additions are in conjunction with additional mandates for community schools, school counselors, administrative staff, and teacher training. Are these noble expenditures? Probably. Are they realistic? In many cases no.
Locally, because of the Blueprint, counties such as Talbot find themselves forced into funding education well beyond their means according to their tax revenues. Talbot had an additional $4.1 million in school funding. Baltimore County added $214 million making their education allotment for 2024 $2.58 billion. Montgomery County increased their budget by almost $300 million. This is not Monopoly money, it is real taxpayer funded dollars that can only be generated via higher taxes, despite the illusion the Governor may want to present.
So, if the Governor is truly preaching the idea of being more disciplined, then maybe counties should pick up that idea and run with it.
What would happen if a county just said "no?"
I can hear all the county school board members and county council members in the state screaming at this idea. "Why, why we would lose all of our state funds and probably federal funds as well!"
Let's think about that. In 2021, Talbot County funded approximately 65% of their education budget without State or Federal money. Worcester County funded 73.9%, Montgomery funded 62.8%. In Talbot that means that approximately $44 million or around $10,000 a pupil, was funded locally. In Worcester, this was around $94 million or $15,000 a student. In Montgomery, it was $1.8 billion or $11,000 per pupil.1
These three counties, without federal or state funding, would still spend quite a bit of money per student. Of course, when you add in the proportionally lower State and Federal funding, the per student allotment is higher, but not by more than approximately 30%.
To be fair, other counties like Caroline, only funded 17.8% or $3000 per child through local money. Those counties have a much larger need for state help. In many ways, they are addicted to it.
Even so, would they be able to forgo State and Federal money if they were no longer encumbered by mandates such as three-year-old and all day four-year-old programs, forced increases in salaries, community schools, additional middle management staff such as Blueprint Coordinators, etc.?
It's like buying a home. In my town alone, there are multi-million-dollar homes and there are homes that top out at around $300,000 in price. What's the difference? Well, the more expensive homes have nicer, waterfront or historic district locations, possibly have more amenities like pools, fancy modern kitchens, more rooms, etc. Other homes are smaller, are in different areas of a town that may be considered less desirable, and have more modest kitchens, designs, etc. and cost less. But both sets of homes still fulfill the same basic function, shelter, privacy, comfort, etc.
Would all of us like to live in the fancy houses? Of course. But most of us can't afford that and are actually quite happy where we are. We made the decision about which home to buy based on what we need and can afford.
School districts are the same and counties like Caroline can decide what their students truly need and the system can afford. State and federal mandates get in the way of that decision.
How much to each county's budget do the mandates add? It's hard to tell. But Talbot County presented these additional Blueprint required positions for FY23:
According to Talbot County Public Schools documents, this along with the 4% raise this year for all certificated staff in order to phase into a Blueprint required base salary of $60,000 in 2027, is an additional staffing cost of approximately $1.4 million this year alone. (As a side note, the county employs 321 full time professionals. As of yesterday, one week before school starts, they still have 26 vacancies, some of them mandated by the Blueprint.)
By Union projections, there will be an additional 15,000 educators hired in Maryland under the Blueprint. A boon for the union. Not so good for the systems. Systems will have to find educators to fill all the extra spots and the money to pay them. Already, the state is considering relaxing the certification requirements for teachers to get more people in the hiring pipeline.
Other Blueprint mandates that will cost more money are new buildings or building upgrades for mandatory pre-k or health care facilities within school buildings and/or communities. Without these mandates, counties could assess their own needs and make fiscally justified decisions.
The best part would be that locals would have more control over their own schools, what is taught there, and how money is best spent to support student achievement. In such an environment, parents and community members will be more involved. They will also be able to talk to school boards and have a larger voice which is so important.
Maybe saying "no" like the Governor suggested would be a great idea for local governments.
What would the State and Feds do in the case that locals refused Blueprint mandates? Take them to court? It's been done before, and it takes years to get a case through the judiciary. During that time, schools in those areas will not shut down because of lack of State and Federal funding. Families will not be left to their own devices to educate their children.
It could be the best thing that ever happens to local school systems and the students who attend them. Imagine, an education system tailoring its program to its constituents and focusing resources on academic achievement for all children. What a novel idea.
“We can be a state where our finances support our ambition,” the governor said. “We can be a state that unleashes a new wave of dynamism by harnessing the great assets we already have — and getting them moving in the same direction.”
I'm not sure he was thinking about refusing expensive Blueprint mandates when he said this, but I can see how saying "no" might unleash a new wave of dynamism by harnessing the great LOCAL assets we have- and getting them moving in the right direction. And that right direction might be locals just saying, "no" and doing a better job of educating our children without State or Federal interference.
**Writer's note: Just in case you think I am delirious in my thinking that counties will ever do this, I'm not. One thing I have learned in the past three years is that NO ONE Republican or Democrat, really wants to solve the education problem or go against the tide.