Council President Craig Rice on Monday announced an alternative way to fully fund the school system’s $2.3 billion budget request for next year that won’t put the county over the feared maintenance of effort minimum.
County Executive Isiah Leggett recommended the county go $26 million over the maintenance of effort minimum in its fiscal year 2015 school operating budget. MCPS requested a total that is $51.7 million over the minimum. But county leaders were wary that the county would have to fund the schools at the same rate of per-pupil funding in future years.
That set up a potentially divisive debate between school supporters and county elected officials with a June primary looming. PTA members made it clear they would be watching to see if the Council fully funded the school system’s budget request.
Rice and the Council’s Education Committee recommended an approach that would shift the $26 million in county funds over the MOE to a healthcare trust for retired MCPS employees. Another $13.3 million would come from a projected surplus in existing healthcare funds. Another $11.2 million would come from the MCPS general fund balance, a move also recommended by Leggett.
The combined $51.7 million in funding over the MOE, but from other sources, would not reset the MOE base for next year.
In the Monday Committee hearing on the new arrangement, Rice said he made the move to fund schools, not because of any political pressure from school unions or PTA groups. He made reference to closing the school system’s achievement gap in his remarks.
“That is ultimately what this is about,” Rice said. “This budget isn’t about pressure. It isn’t about election year. It’s about making sure we’re being responsive to our community.”
Councilmember Phil Andrews, an outspoken critic of the new MOE law, backed Rice’s plan. Andrews is running for county executive in part on his record of fiscal restraint. The approach would be a one-time taking of money from the trusts for an ongoing cost. It’s unclear how county officials would deal with a similar situation next budget season.
“The problem with the proposal we received is it would have locked us in year-after-year and over a 10-year period required taxpayers be on the hook for $260 million that could not have been adjusted,” said Andrews, speaking to Rice. “You’ve developed a proposal that allows us to increase spending on MCPS for children and to do so in a way that does not lock taxpayers in. So it’s a fiscally responsible way to do it.”
Rice, Andrews, other members of Council, Leggett, Starr and other school system representatives held a press conference announcing the new funding arrangement shortly after the Committee session.
Photo via @SonyaNBurke