It wasn’t difficult to identify the teachers who made up a large portion of last night’s overflow crowd In Silver Spring for County Executive Ike Leggett’s first forum on his proposed fiscal 2019 budget.
They had donned red T-shirts sporting the Montgomery County Education Association’s apple logo.
The teachers came out in force as Leggett and the County Council work through a $60 million savings plan for the current budget year and prepare for a constrained fiscal 2019 budget, which covers county spending from July 1 to June 30, 2019. The county's current operating budget is $5.4 billion.
This year, Leggett has asked Montgomery County Public Schools to cut $25 million from its current budget . To do so, the school system has proposed cutting administrative services rather than funds for teachers and classrooms. The council is currently working through the savings plan and aims to approve the cuts in the next month or so.
The cuts and bleak budget outlook for the county’s next fiscal year drew the concern of county teachers who expressed their frustrations Wednesday night at the Mid-County Community Recreation Center in Aspen Hill. More than 200 people attended the forum to hear Leggett speak and share their budget concerns.
One kindergarten teacher held a small bin of 30 ping pong balls to represent the 30 students in her class. Dumping them on to the ground and watching them as they bounced off the floor and chairs, the teacher said of her students, “Some of them are going to roll away and get lost.” A James Hubert Blake High School English teacher, Michael Kelley, urged Leggett to provide more funding for school counselors and psychologists to help schools deal with student suicides and students who are experiencing violence at home or emotional problems.
A teacher holding ping pong balls before dumping them onto the floor at the forum. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
The group of teachers loudly cheered as other teachers and paraeducators asked Leggett to deal with issues ranging from a lack of significant pay increases to overcrowding and aging school buildings.
As Leggett explained the county’s current budget situation, he noted income tax revenues from about 50 of the county’s wealthiest residents came in about $70 million less than expected. He said the county next year will have to begin making payments related to the Wynne case, which will be given to residents who were unable to take a local tax credit on income tax paid to another state—a taxing scheme found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. He said Wynne case payments will cost the county about $14 million in the fiscal 2019 budget.
He also pointed out the council lacks the political will to raise taxes given the public backlash after the 8.7 percent property tax increase approved in 2016. He said the council raised taxes above what he recommended, but did not increase his recommended funding for the school system in that budget year. Instead, he said, the council increased spending elsewhere, which created the tight fiscal situation the county finds itself in now.
“We increased taxes to a level where voters have had it up to here with taxes,” Leggett said. “As a result of that, now that we’re faced with a budgetary shortfall, the idea that we could go back to taxes is off the table. That’s off the table. I will not recommend, as I did last year, any additional tax increases.”
In response to a question about overcrowded schools and aging buildings, Leggett suggested one possible fix would be to change school boundaries so that students at overcrowded schools could be shifted to those that aren’t at full capacity.
“We need to go back and look at our boundaries, but no one wants to do that,” Leggett said. “We can’t change [school] boundaries that will relieve some of the challenges we have. We are working under some level of constraint here.”
Those in attendance pressed Leggett on the need for more school funding even though the council has approved budget increases for the school system of $140 million in fiscal 2017 and of $60 million in fiscal 2018. In both years the increases were above the state-mandated maintenance of effort, which requires jurisdictions to fund per pupil spending at or above the previous year’s funding.
Chris Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the local teachers’ union, said Thursday that despite the funding increases, school spending hasn’t kept up with rising enrollment. He said MCPS is spending less per student now than the system did in 2009.
“To get back to those levels, we need to increase the budget by $100 million,” Lloyd said.
On boundary changes, Lloyd said making such changes would be difficult.
“People buy houses because they want to live in a place and have their kids attend a certain school,” Lloyd said. “We always welcome a conversation, because you want schools to be balanced. In some cases we have schools at 80 percent capacity next to schools at 120 percent capacity. Everyone would be open to that, but it’s a political challenge to have that discussion.”
Lloyd said he hopes the county’s political leaders will note the budget forum showed that teachers are "feeling that they’re under stress and kids are under stress.”
He said the teachers showed up to demonstrate to Leggett “that the school system needs to be funded and we have been underfunded for a long time.”
Four more budget forums during which Leggett will take public input before sending his operating budget proposal to the council are scheduled through early February. The sessions will be held on:
- Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. at BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown;
- Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. at the Silver Spring Civic Building;
- Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Eastern Montgomery Regional Services Center in Silver Spring; and
- Feb. 6 at 7 p.m at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center in Bethesda.