2022 | Opinion

Opinion: Montgomery County’s Budget: More Smoke and Clouded Mirrors

Tying spending to strategy costs and outcomes would increase transparency

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County Executive Marc Elrich’s recommended operating budget for fiscal year 2023 is a record $6.3 billion and exceeds the County Council’s spending affordability guidelines for our schools and debt. One could describe it as more smoke than mirrors. Smoke because, as usual, it’s replete with beautiful words but has fuzzy outcomes and clouded mirrors because we can’t see what we are getting for all the spending. So, what does our county need and what does the budget actually buy us? How many kids will achieve proficiency in reading and math? What percentage of police cases will be closed? Will the average commute time be acceptable? How many affordable housing units will we have?

Budget controls need to go beyond the current focus on incremental changes. We need to be able to clearly tie the total funding allocated for, say running public schools, to strategy costs and their outcomes. Are we continuing to fund “nice to have” but inefficient strategies? Are we allocating more money to successful strategies? Do we even know what they are? Long-term aspirational statements may serve political objectives but lack accountability for results because quantified performance objectives aren’t stated. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a strategic budget schedule with a line for every strategy, showing current and requested spending and performance outcome targets? A balancing line for agency overhead at the bottom would then sum to each agency’s total budget request and reveal the percentage of non-strategic spending being requested.

To illustrate how this approach would avoid smoke and allow us a clear look into the mirror, let’s use the Montgomery County Public Schools pre-kindergarten education as an example. An MCPS strategy budget schedule would show a line for Pre-K education, with a requested budget of $20.2 million. Base spending isn’t shown in the budget request, but Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight’s budget proposal references a budget increase of $3.3 million to fund 41.5 more full-time equivalent employees. We can infer that the base spending is the difference, or $16.9 million. Will the budget increase cost-effectively increase enrollment and students’ school readiness enough next year to achieve program objectives?

Pre-K enrollment data is shown growing from 1,787 to 2,034, but this increases the average cost for each additional student by 41% (from $9,457 to $13,360). Also, the projected enrollment serves just a fraction of the 10,000 low-income 3- and 4-year-old kids that the Montgomery County Taxpayers League estimates are eligible for MCPS Pre-K (based on total kindergarten enrollment of 10,771 as of Sept. 30, 2021). One baseline for comparing the average cost per student is the separate Head Start program budget, which costs 17% less per student than what MCPS would spend if its total funding request were approved ($7,530 vs. $9,931). Also, the Head Start program budget calls for delivering a school readiness student outcome for 65% to 75% of the kids it enrolls. The MCPS Pre-K strategy doesn’t disclose a school readiness target, but if the Head Start program delivers the same or better school readiness, then it would be more cost-effective.

Another Pre-K education budget issue is the state’s $2.7 million earmark for private providers. Would they offer a more cost-effective solution? We know they’re likely to be located closer to some neighborhoods where low-income students live than the three centralized MCPS Pre-K facilities: Clearspring, New Hampshire Estates, and Gaithersburg elementary schools. Offering services in private facilities closer to low-income neighborhoods would likely increase enrollment while reducing the facility cost per student. If that can be done while improving on Head Start’s school readiness outcome, funding those new Pre-K providers becomes more cost-effective. That would be a win for our families and taxpayers as a result of budgeting strategically.

Those are the kinds of questions that are not answered in the budget. Why not?

Gordie Brenne of Silver Spring is the treasurer of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League

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