Appeals for More School Funding Made As Council Opens Budget Hearings

Appeals for More School Funding Made As Council Opens Budget Hearings

County executive recommends $12 million less than school board requested

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Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich’s $5.7 billion proposed county budget devotes $2.65 billion to Montgomery County public schools, a $51 million increase from this year’s budget.

But members of the education community aren’t pleased that the budget does not fund more than $12 million that the school system had requested, and they expressed their concerns at a public hearing Monday night.

“The county must fund the personnel increases that we need to succeed. Now is not the time to cut school funding,” said Jim Bradley, the coordinator for the Walter Johnson High cluster of Bethesda-area schools.

Michele Moller, who is the coordinator of the Northwood cluster in Silver spring, said the additional funding is critical to combat crowding, increasingly disproportionate teacher-to-student ratio and larger numbers of students enrolling in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program.

“One-half of 1% is all we’re asking for. Is that too much to invest in our children’s future?” said Moller, referring to the amount in the school budget that has been left out.

Ellie Kleinman, a counselor at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring, said the loss of a part-time counselor next year will make it increasingly difficult to meet the needs of the growing school system population. This exceeds the suggested ratio of one counselor to every 250 students of the American School Counseling Association, she said. Although the county’s middle and high schools have that number of counselors, elementary schools are far behind, with some schools having as many as 500 to 700 students for every one counselor.

“The impact of this decision is troubling, especially when we as a county say we want to do more to be trauma sensitive in schools and help close the achievement gap,” she said.

Kleinman said more than 60% of New Hampshire Estates’ student population is enrolled in English language programs, and there are large numbers of immigrant families. That demographic, she said, has significant needs for counseling services as some families are dealing with the past trauma of civil war, gang violence, fear of deportation and adjustment to life in the United States. Such strife, she said, can take its toll on children in the absence of adequate mental health professionals.

“We will become largely reactionary in order to deal with the many needs of our community and we will no longer be able to provide proactive health programs or services … thereby placing more of a burden on our teachers,” she said.

Christopher Bowerman, the coordinator of the Watkins Mill High cluster in Gaithersburg, said six of the seven schools in the area have populations of students who qualify for free and reduced meals at more than 50%. South Lake Elementary School, he said, has no crossing guard. Additionally, many of the school media centers have no furniture and there is a need for more 21st century upgrades.

“Several of our schools lack basic technology equipment needed in today’s world,” he said.

The council is holding two more days of public hearings on the budget Tuesday and Wednesday, which will be followed by a monthlong process of making changes to the budget. The council will take action on the final budget in late May.

Council President Nancy Navarro, a former school board president, said following the meeting that she felt confident based on conversations with school Superintendent Jack Smith and Elrich that the $12.5 million gap could be closed, but wasn’t sure of the specific actions that would need to be taken.

The council has $10 million within the budget to allocate to any area of their choosing, but Navarro said the council won’t be able to rely on that exclusively.

“Those $10 million are not gonna be enough to address these priorities. So we need to work beyond that,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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