As Schools Open With More Students Than Ever, County Leaders Sound Familiar Tone

As Schools Open With More Students Than Ever, County Leaders Sound Familiar Tone

Officials agree school system needs more funding, but it remains unclear how county will get it

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At a press conference Monday, County Executive Ike Leggett shows off a photo of his granddaughter before her first day of first grade

Aaron Kraut

With more public school students than ever and school construction funding not keeping pace, a variety of Montgomery County leaders gathered at a Rockville elementary school Monday to talk about the need for more money dedicated to education.

Just where that funding might come from is still an open question.

County Executive Ike Leggett again hinted at raising property taxes. State Sen. Nancy King (Dist. 39) promised a renewed fight in Annapolis for state funding during the next legislative session. The vice president of the countywide PTA organization suggested a bigger cut of casino revenue should be reserved for education.

What is clear, officials said, is that the school system of more than 156,000 students is reaching a tipping point.

“We have an excellent system. But no system can continue to operate effectively with the kinds of numbers that we see and the restraints on resources that we’ve had in the last few years,” said Leggett, who opened his remarks by showing a photo of his granddaughter before her first day of first grade Monday.

“I brag constantly about our school system, but I cannot continue to hold that flag up unless we are prepared to provide the resources that we’ve talked about,” Leggett said.

That could mean a property tax hike, a proposition the county executive has frequently mentioned as a possibility for next year’s budget. A property tax hike past the county’s charter limit would require a unanimous vote by the County Council.

Leggett said Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) can no longer reach its goals with funding at the minimum maintenance-of-effort amount required by the state.

Facing budget uncertainty earlier this year, the county approved a schools budget at the maintenance-of-effort minimum, which meant MCPS had to go back and cut $53 million worth of operating expenses.

The cuts forced the Board of Education to hold back 341 school-based staffing allocations for the 2015-2016 school year, bringing slightly bigger class sizes in some county schools starting Monday.

With the impact of the Supreme Court’s Wynne tax case decision weighing over the county’s budget process, next year’s education budget prospects don’t look any better.

MCPS Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers pointed out the school system has added 50 new classrooms for this school year, which affords space for about 1,200 to 1,250 students.

There are more than 2,600 additional students attending MCPS compared to last year and the school system is projecting an additional 9,000 students by the 2020-2021 school year.

Monday’s event was held at Wheaton Woods Elementary School, a 1950s building that’s about 200 students over capacity and awaiting a modernization project to replace what school officials called “a village” of temporary portable classrooms.

Against the backdrop of daunting enrollment projections, Board of Education President Patricia O’Neill tried to inject some positivity.

“I want to be clear, though. Growth is not a problem. It’s a compliment,” O’Neill said. “We are so pleased that so many parents want to send their children to Montgomery County Public Schools and entrust us to provide them with a world-class education.”

Council Education Committee President Craig Rice worried the system may not be able to provide that level of education for much longer if not provided with enough state funding.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision in May not to release $17.8 million of education funding to Montgomery County roiled many in Annapolis, Rockville and the education field.

Rice said he urged Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford not to make the same move earlier this month at a conference of state elected leaders in Ocean City. Rutherford took Hogan’s place at the event while Hogan was receiving treatment for cancer.

“I told him, ‘You do not want to make it seem as though this administration does not care about educating our kids.’ But that’s the risk that they run,” Rice said Monday. “When you see a school like Wheaton Woods that continues to provide for their kids even though they’ve got huge amounts of trailers, with teachers and building staff doing everything they can to still make sure that they get a quality education. Why are we making it tough? Why are we making it difficult for people to do what we know is right? We’ve got to step up.”

Paul Geller, vice president of programs for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs (MCCPTA), said his group will lobby state legislators to shift more revenue from casinos in the state to education.

King said she would examine how the shift in popularity from slots to table games has impacted state education funding from gambling.

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