As the Montgomery County school board Tuesday voted to cut staffing allocations and other programs for next school year, members defended teacher raises and lambasted Gov. Larry Hogan for withholding more than $17 million in anticipated funding.
“It’s the poorest of choices,” Board member Phil Kauffman said of Hogan’s decision to withhold the money, part of a state funding formula for school systems where education costs are higher. “It’s just a gratuitous, short-sighted [decision]. Not sure what the thought is other than, you know, maybe Montgomery County and Prince George’s County and some of the other jurisdictions that didn’t support him, but I think it’s disgraceful that the governor is not releasing those funds.”
While board members’ criticism of county government wasn’t nearly as harsh, many commented on the long-running tension with the county executive and County Council when it comes to the state-mandated maintenance of effort funding policy.
“We have been put in an interesting political situation,” said board member Chris Barclay. “Maintenance of effort used to be the floor, now [it] has become the ceiling. We don’t make the decision on how much the state, the county or the federal government will give us.”
Kauffman and two other board members said they considered voting against the budget, which passed by a unanimous vote, in a sign of protest against what they perceive as a lack of adequate funding.
The Montgomery County Council approved $2.32 billion in school funding for fiscal year 2016, which starts July 1.
The school system had requested $53 million more than the $2.32 billion. The council chose to fund the school system at the minimum level required by the Maintenance of Effort law, which establishes a minimum per-pupil funding standard for future years.
It was the seventh straight year the county has funded Montgomery County Public Schools at or below the maintenance of effort minimum.
The council-approved education budget is an increase of $31.9 million, or 1.4 percent, from last year’s education budget. But Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers has said an increasing school enrollment of about 2,000 students a year means it’s not enough.
Of the 380 staff positions held back, 341 will be school-based staff.
Bowers, who made the recommendation for the cuts, said it’s unlikely any current teachers will lose their jobs because of retirements and other typical staff turnover. A school system spokesperson said it’s possible some school-based staff will be shifted around via involuntary transfers.
The cut in allocations means that some schools that might have got a new teacher or staff person based on enrollment increases won’t. About 40 central office jobs will be cut.
The school system has said the budget won’t mean class size increases at all schools, and that schools in areas with more low-income families will be spared from the staff allocation cuts.
Bowers concentrated many of his comments Tuesday on defending salary increases for school staff against “suggestions that our staff has gotten more than other [county] unions.”
School system employees are set to get a 2 percent cost of living increase next school year and eligible employees will move up a step on the salary scale.
The budget approved Tuesday delayed those increases by one pay period in October, saving more than $3 million. The unions representing school system staff agreed to ratify the change in their contracts.
Last week, Council Education Committee Chair Craig Rice released a statement on the school system budget pointing out it’s had an overall increase in staff despite tight county budgets.
“While the school system, along with other county agencies, made many adjustments during these difficult years, the total MCPS budget contains 631 more positions than it did seven years ago at the beginning of the recession and a total of 21,580 positions in the current year,” Rice said.
Bowers said that if the school system were to provide the same ratio of staff-to-students as it did seven years ago, it would’ve had to add about 3,000 positions to deal with an increase of about 20,000 students.
He also said the school system staff went five years, from 2010 to 2014, without a general wage adjustment or cost of living increase.
“I think our staff has both struggled through the cuts and also has been very supportive of working through this very difficult budget in taking modest increases,” Bowers said. “I’m not looking to necessarily compare, just to clarify that our increases have not been at the same level as the other agencies.”
Bowers also said next year’s budget outlook could very well bring an even larger budget gap.
“We know it’s going to be a challenge, perhaps more so than this year,” Board President Patricia O’Neill said.