By LINDSAY POWERS
BOWIE, Md. (November 20, 2010)With Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget proposal for next year due on Jan. 21, Maryland Education Coalition Chair Charlie Cooper urged residents to "stand up and organize" immediately to prevent cuts in state funds for public schools at a panel discussion Thursday at Bowie High School.
In light of a $1.6 billion shortfall the state will face next year, and the loss of federal funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Cooper and other panel members expressed concern that education could face cuts in the governor's plan or from the legislature's "sharp knives" during a discussion in front of dozens of teachers, parents and others. The panel was organized by the Maryland Education Coalition, a non-profit advocacy group.
Local school systems are already struggling with their own budget pressures and hearing about other possible strains, such as a transfer of teacher pension coverage from the state to the counties.
The panelists asked attendees to rally to maintain state aid badly needed by local school systems by informing others and making themselves heard by state legislators and the governor.
"If we don't make noise, those cuts are coming," said Neil Bergsman, director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute.
Monica Evans, a member of the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education and a parent of a kindergartner in a Prince George's County public school, attended the event to get more information about how to best reach out to other people about what can be done to prevent cuts.
"We will have your back," Evans told the panelists. "Our kids need us."
The panelists suggested joining email listservs with information about when and how to contact legislators, as well as arranging meetings to organize schools and communities. They also recalled successful efforts in 2004 to protect education funding from cuts, which included a march in Annapolis during the legislative session.
Abigail Breiseth, co-founder and vice chair of Southwest Baltimore Charter School, said her school used "phone and email brigades" in 2004, a tactic she hopes to bring back.
"We're going to have to benefit from our past experiences," said Alvin Thornton, chair of a commission that developed one of the state's key education funding formulas.
Thornton said that Marylanders have to let legislators know they are willing to put their money toward education, which must remain a priority for the state to succeed.
Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for the governor, said there are funds the state can rely on next year that will help protect education. Federal Race to the Top money will likely contribute, as will 80 percent of the $179 million the state gained from the Education Jobs Act of 2010.
"The governor I think in the last four years has demonstrated his commitment to education," Adamec said.
Although the governor has not indicated he will make cuts to education, Cooper cautioned those at the event "against complacency."