2015 | Schools

Interim Schools Leader Calls for $135 Million Budget Increase

Larry Bowers says anything less than the $2.4 billion budget requested would be a 'disinvestment in education'

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MCPS Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers (file photo)

Aaron Kraut

The interim leader of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) says the school system needs a $134.9 million budget increase next fiscal year just to keep up with growing enrollment, growing health and retirement costs and increases in negotiated staff salaries.

Larry Bowers, who after 37 years with MCPS is expected to retire next summer, said Tuesday while presenting his recommended fiscal year 2017 operating budget that he didn’t intend “to make excuses” or criticize the county government that has funded schools at the minimum level required by law the past seven years.

Still, he didn’t hold back, arguing that even with the requested 4.5 percent increase, his recommended $2.4 billion operating budget “is not nearly enough” to make a dent in a longstanding achievement gap between black, Hispanic and white and Asian students.

“We cannot continue to fund the budget as we have in the past and expect the school system and our schools to meet [educational] targets,” Bowers told a room full of MCPS staff in Rockville. “This is a disinvestment in education.”

He went on to say that funding the fiscal 2017 schools budget at the minimum level required by the state’s maintenance of effort law “actually means lowering our investment in education.” The law requires the district spend the same per-pupil funding amount year to year but Bowers said MCPS also must cover increased employee benefits and salary costs.

Of the $103 million in spending increases requested by Bowers, $22.7 million would be devoted to dealing with enrollment growth in an effort to avoid an increase in class sizes.

Almost $27 million would be devoted to rising costs for employee health and retirement benefits and $55.3 million would pay for teacher and staff salary increases as negotiated with the county’s various teachers unions.

Bowers said MCPS plans to move its Partnerships and Shared Accountability office into the Office of the Superintendent, set up an Office of Student Services and Family Engagement and move its Study Circles Program to the school system’s Equity Unit. The reorganization would save MCPS about $5.7 million. With $1.5 million needed for other cost increases and $2.8 million set aside for some enhancements, the total spending increase would be about $103 million.

Bowers focused on enhancements to fourth-grade math programs, including a more focused and individualized approach by math teachers that he said would be key to addressing the achievement gap.

With $24 million needed to restore one-time funding allotted for this fiscal year’s budget and $7.9 million for teacher pensions shifted from the state to the county, the total requested increase is $134.9 million.

Earlier this year, the Montgomery County Council approved a $2.32 billion MCPS operating budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. It was an increase of $31.9 million, or 1.4 percent, from the previous year’s schools budget, but MCPS said it had to hold back 380 staff allocations and raise class sizes by one student in some schools because it had received less funding than needed.

Bowers on Tuesday was adamant that he would not recommend more cuts and pointed to a long period of tight budgets. The school system’s enrollment has increased by 17,000 students, or 12.4 percent, since 2009 while staffing levels have grown by just 676 positions, or 3.3 percent.

“Over the last several years, I have seen the cracks in this foundation,” Bowers said. “We simply cannot cut any further or else those cracks will widen.”

It appears unlikely that County Executive Ike Leggett or the council will fully fund Bowers’ request.

Leggett has repeatedly said over the last year that a property tax increase could be necessary next year to stem a shortfall resulting from lower-than-expected state tax revenues and the loss of the money the county must pay back after the state lost the Wynne case in the Supreme Court.

As Bowers was delivering his recommendations Tuesday, the council was hearing from budget analysts who predicted county government revenues would fall by $134 million in this fiscal year and fiscal year 2017.