The Montgomery County Board of Education on Tuesday is set to ask county officials for $45 million more in next year’s schools budget than was requested in December by Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers.
Bowers requested a $134.9 million increase from this year’s county schools spending in a budget totaling $2.45 billion for the fiscal year that starts in July. That budget request was already $88.5 million more than the minimum amount of funding required by the state’s maintenance of effort law.
The county executive and County Council, which will finalize the county’s annual budget, haven’t funded the school system above the maintenance of effort minimum in the past seven years.
The law requires local governments to provide at least the same level of per-pupil funding to their public school systems as they did the prior year. In tight budget times and with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) growing at a rate of about 2,500 students a year, county lawmakers have said going above the minimum would create larger budget constraints in the future.
But Bowers said his December budget request was merely enough to cover spending for the school system’s increasing enrollment, a pay raise for teachers and rising retirement and health benefit costs—and not enough for additional services or hiring staff to reduce class sizes.
Board of Education President Michael Durso said Monday the board’s proposed $45 million add-on would go beyond that. For the first time during Durso’s seven years on the board, the request has been organized in three tiers ranked by priority.
“We’re always hopeful,” Durso said Monday when asked if he thinks it's possible that County Executive Ike Leggett and the council will grant the board’s full request. “If we can garner some additional dollars, this is where we would like it to be put. I think it’s very early in the process to make any predictions.”
The first tier, $15.7 million, would provide for a boost of almost 230 full-time staff positions, which would allow the school system to partially restore class sizes to the lower levels they were at before this year’s budget went into effect. Bowers and the board held back 380 staffing allocations and average class sizes in some schools increased by one student for the 2015-2016 school year.
The $15.7 million would also provide for an increase in the number of elementary school counselors at high-poverty elementary schools and more “focus teachers” to target literacy and mathematics for black, Hispanic and low-income students.
It would also provide $113,000 for some of the school system’s largest high schools, Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring in particular, to hold graduation ceremonies at a bigger venue, such as the 18,000-seat Xfinity Center on the University of Maryland campus. Most of the county's 25 high schools now hold graduation ceremonies at the 3,700-seat DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.
“There have been some issues in the past with the size of DAR Constitution Hall, where we have most of our graduations,” Durso said. “This will add some additional revenue so that the schools may have some other options to accommodate a larger crowd.”
There are 619 students in Blair’s graduating class this year. It’s the county's largest high school.
Tiers two and three include another $29 million in funding for more staffing allocations, the continued rollout of the school system’s Google Chromebook initiative and other efforts aimed at reducing the system’s achievement gap between white and Asian students and black and Hispanic students.
Tier three includes money to add enough staff to restore class sizes to 2008-2009 levels across all school levels. The school system has seen a number of class size increases as enrollment has grown.
Some PTA representatives have urged Leggett to pursue a property tax increase that could help fully fund the school system’s request. Leggett is set to reveal March 15 his operating budget recommendation for fiscal year 2017.
In 2014, the County Council used one-time funding sources to fully fund the school system’s $2.3 billion annual operating budget request without going over the maintenance of effort minimum.
Durso on Monday defended a proposed salary increase for teachers and staff that was negotiated with the county’s teachers’ unions and is part of Bowers’ budget request. The salary increase would go into effect Sept. 3 and means annual salary increases next fiscal year of about $2,000 for staff across the system’s 10-step salary scale.
“What really concerns me, having worked in two other school systems besides here, is we really in my opinion are beginning to flirt with some serious morale issues,” Durso said. “Teaching is extraordinarily difficult and it bothers me that we’re in a state right now where we just, I’m afraid, have pushed our teachers to the limit as well as our administrators. To deal [away] their salaries and benefits, I think, is an approach that could only be harmful.”
The board is scheduled to approve the operating budget during its Tuesday meeting, though that meeting could be canceled if the school system’s central office is closed because of winter weather.