A report released Tuesday criticizes Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) for not spending $47 million in state aid on programs at schools with poorer students.
The report, from the County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight, examined spending and staffing at MCPS schools, with a focus on how schools with high levels of students in poverty compared to schools with low levels of students in poverty.
It found that during the 2014-2015 school year, MCPS allocated only about two-thirds of the $151 million it received from the state for what’s called compensatory aid to programs for low-income students. That left $47 million in compensatory aid that was spread across MCPS’ operating budget, “rather than used to fund additional compensatory education programs that served low-income students.”
Upon the release of the report, County Council member Nancy Floreen questioned the school system’s spending strategy.
“Why should the County Council ask taxpayers to chip in more resources for closing the achievement gap when MCPS hasn’t used all the money it already has precisely for that purpose?” Floreen asked in a prepared statement.
MCPS Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers said Tuesday the OLO report misrepresented what compensatory funding means. In 2002, the General Assembly passed a new law that meant the money was no longer required to be spent solely on programs in high-poverty schools and could be used to fill in funding gaps across an entire school district.
He also said the report failed to emphasize the programs the school system has undertaken to address the achievement gap, including incentivizing high-performing teachers to work at low-performing schools.
“We would love to spend more money on our schools that have higher FARMs rates,” said Bowers, referring to the free and reduced-price meals program that’s used as a measure of poverty in schools.
“With the difficult challenges we’ve been facing with the budget, we just haven’t been able to provide those additional resources,” Bowers said. “I’ve made the assessment that the only place to take those dollars would be to take money from those schools with lower poverty rates. I don’t think we’re in a position to reallocate those resources right now.”
The County Council approved $2.32 billion in school funding for fiscal year 2016, which started July 1. MCPS said that amount left it $53 million short of what it needed for a school system growing at more than 2,000 students a year, meaning it had to delay allocating 341 school-based staff positions—leading to class sizes that grew by one student in some low-poverty schools.
Council Education Committee Chairman Craig Rice sounded a gentler tone than his colleague Floreen.
“I commend the school system for its demonstrated investment in differentiating resources to support students’ individual needs,” Rice said in a statement. “I look forward to working together as we discuss what additional programmatic resources would best support our students with the most needs and how we can effectively and creatively implement these strategies.”
Bowers also said that to his knowledge, no school district in Maryland dedicates its entire share of compensatory funding in the way the OLO report suggested MCPS should.
But Floreen suggested MCPS had a moral obligation to dedicate the money to higher-poverty schools.
“I don’t question whether it is legal, but I question whether it is morally right given the persistence of the achievement gap between poor and non-poor students in MCPS,” Floreen said.
The OLO report examined average class sizes, teacher salaries and teacher costs per student, finding that MCPS allocated more staff to its high-poverty schools but that its more experienced “and expensive” teachers were allocated to lower-poverty schools.
Staffers who put together the OLO report also said they expected MCPS to spend more per student at high-poverty schools than the school system did.
Bowers countered that by splitting county schools into just two groups, OLO produced statistics that distort “the true differentiation of schools of similar type with comparable enrollments.”
He pointed to Sargent Shriver Elementary School in Silver Spring, one of the highest-poverty schools in the county and where 81.6 percent of the 755 students receive free or reduced-price meals. MCPS spent about $8,714 per student at the school last school year with a student-to-staff ratio of 12 to 4.
At Wyngate Elementary School in Bethesda, where fewer than 5 percent of the 770 students received free or reduced-price meals last school year, MCPS spent $5,620 per student and the student-to-staff ratio was 19 to 2.
Overall, there were 23 more teachers and paraprofessionals at Shriver than at Wyngate.
The report is the third since April 2014 in which the OLO has criticized aspects of MCPS. Last month, the OLO issued a report claiming the system MCPS uses to prioritize school renovation projects was based on outdated information.
In April 2014, the OLO released a report that showed while the achievement gap on some student performance measures had decreased, minority students were increasingly enrolled at lower-performing high schools in the east part of the county and the Gaithersburg area.
“There’s some different points of view,” Bowers said. “I think there needs to be a stronger recognition of what this Board of Education already does to differentiate the allocation of resources to support the kids in higher FARMs schools.”