School Board Members Welcome Sea Change Signaled by Superintendent’s First Budget

School Board Members Welcome Sea Change Signaled by Superintendent’s First Budget

Smith's plan redirects resources to address equity issues

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Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith earned a round of applause from onlookers Tuesday at the release of his first budget plan, one that proposes significant spending shifts despite his short time in the system.

The $2.5 billion plan’s departure from business-as-usual seemed to strike a chord with several members of the school board as they listened to Smith’s presentation at the district’s Rockville headquarters.

“Sometimes we make decisions because things have always been done that way and I just really appreciate this fresh look at a lot of different issues,” board member Jill Ortman-Fouse said.

Smith has recommended channeling millions of dollars toward English language learners, those needing special education services and students who don’t make a beeline from high school to college. His plan would eliminate more than 90 information analyst positions and replace them with software so educators can crunch data for their own classrooms. The proposal would also pay for teacher training about cultural competency and implicit bias. 

Smith, who took the helm of Montgomery County Public Schools in July, acknowledged that he’s already faced questions about the approach.

“It would have been nice for me to come in and spend more time in the system before I had to propose these sorts of changes,” he said. “But ‘nice’ isn’t what will get our students to where they need to be.”

The school board gave a warm initial response to the changes, but members also pointed to the long road that leads to the budget’s final adoption in June. Still undetermined are the outcomes of negotiations with the system’s employee unions and how much state and local funding MCPS will receive.

The recommended budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 asks the county to fund schools at $36.9 million above maintenance of effort, the state-mandated minimum. While this fiscal year’s county contribution was the first since 2009 to exceed these required levels, school board President Michael Durso said conversations with the county executive and County Council members have left him “cautiously optimistic” that the county will provide additional funding for a second budget in a row.

But the school funding outlook wasn’t as rosy during a Tuesday fiscal briefing to council members. The spending plan that County Executive Ike Leggett is preparing assumes that county support for education will stay at the required minimum, county budget staff said.

Smith’s proposal, which he is scheduled to present to the public Tuesday night, would increase spending by $62.4 million, or about 2.5 percent, over the prior year. Roughly a third of that amount is tied to spending on the growing student population, the opening of a new middle school in Bethesda and the addition of eighth grade at Hallie Wells Middle School in Germantown.

The superintendent also shared his concerns that local schools could lose federal funding for students in poverty or language acquisition programs under the Republican administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

The school board has until Feb. 14 to hand off a version of a proposed school budget to the council. The fiscal 2018 plan’s final adoption is scheduled for June 13.

Staff writer Douglas Tallman contributed to this report.

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