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Lawmakers grapple with budget issues

December 15, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Earlier this year, Del. Robert A. McKee considered seeking legislation to make school uniforms mandatory in Maryland.

But when he brought up the idea to local students, he got nothing but negative feedback.

"I will be honest. It was unanimous," he said.

Because of that opposition, McKee, R-Washington, said he won't be putting in a bill when the legislative session begins Jan. 14.

While he still likes the idea of uniforms as a way to lessen peer pressure, it's an issue that should be tackled by each county school system rather than the state, he said.

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But there will be plenty of education issues to be resolved next year by the Maryland General Assembly, along with the legislatures in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

In Maryland, legislators will debate education funding.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich is expected to funnel more money into education, as recommended by the Thornton Commission. But the legislature could pare down the increases to address the state's budget deficit.

Some lawmakers have talked about eliminating or delaying an all-day kindergarten requirement to save money, McKee said.

However, Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick is opposed, he said.

In Pennsylvania, the biggest unresolved education issue is the simple question of spending, said Rep. Pat Fleagle, R-Franklin.

Five months into the budget year, the state still has not approved an education budget, forcing local school systems to borrow money to keep classroom doors open.

"The recent impasse in the budget is just controlling everything as far as education goes," Fleagle said.

Gov. Ed Rendell has been pushing for $400 million for early childhood education initiatives.

Senate Republicans have been blocking the effort.

"Unfortunately, I think we're holding the kids and education funding hostage," he said.

Fleagle said while Rendell's goals are laudable, he's worried about the cost and the added pressure to raise taxes.

In West Virginia, one of the biggest education issues will be teacher pay raises. No state employees got raises last year, said Del. Walter Duke, R-Berkeley.

"When it comes to pay raises, it seems we desperately need to do something," said Duke, a retired teacher who serves on the House Education Committee.

The state is at a disadvantage attracting and retaining good teachers because of the salaries, combined with an underfunded pension system, he said.

West Virginia also doesn't give cost-of-living increases to retirees, he said.

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