2021 | Schools

With enrollment fluctuating, advocates ask MCPS to reconsider staffing formulas

First hearing about proposed $2.7 billion Fiscal Year 2022 budget held on Monday

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Education advocates on Monday pushed for a different approach to determining how staff members are assigned to each Montgomery County school as enrollment fluctuates due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Each year, as MCPS develops its next budget, formulas are used to determine how many staff members each school will have, based on its projected enrollment. Different positions have different formulas. For example, high schools are allocated one counselor for every 250 students.

But the school district’s enrollment dipped significantly this year, an anomaly after more than a decade of steady growth. MCPS officials have attributed the decrease (more than 5,000 students) to the coronavirus pandemic and have said they expect enrollment to rebound when classes return to fully in-person, rather than online.

So, advocates argued during a hearing about the Fiscal Year 2022 budget on Monday night, MCPS should consider a staffing formula that does not rely solely on enrollment.

Violet Fisher, a sixth-grade student in Earle B. Wood Middle School speaking on behalf of the Rockville High School cluster, suggested that MCPS “freeze” staffing allocations at the current level, instead of adjusting them in the next fiscal year.

Lauren Berkowitz, representing the Winston Churchill High School cluster, agreed and added that schools may need additional teachers and paraeducators to help students who have fallen behind during virtual classes.

“As we know, the reduced number of educational hours have left gaps that need to be addressed with urgency,” Berkowitz said.

Amy Ackerberg-Hastings, a Richard Montgomery High School cluster coordinator, said reducing staffing at schools risks “inadvertently punishing students for being less accessible while the buildings have been closed.”

An MCPS spokeswoman could not be reached for comment on Monday night about MCPS’ plan for staffing in the next fiscal year.

Last month, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith revealed his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2022, totaling $2.7 billion. That is a $42 million decrease from the current budget.

The proposed budget, however, asks for about $39 million more in funding from the county government than is required by the state’s “maintenance of effort” law. Maintenance of effort requires county governments to fund their local public school system at least at the same level per pupil as the previous year.

Because MCPS’ enrollment is down more than 5,000 students this academic year, the County Council could choose to provide $39 million less than Smith has requested.

But because MCPS expects most of the students to return when the district returns to in-person instruction, it is important to have the funding to support them, Smith said.

In essence, MCPS is asking the council to help buffer against the projected decrease in state funding by providing more money than is required by state law.

Smith’s proposed MCPS budget does not include any layoffs, but in a memo to the school board last month, Smith wrote that the school district will “look to reduce unfilled positions wherever possible.”

Advocates on Monday also pushed for more mental health resources, outdoor classrooms for summer and fall, KN95 masks for all staff members, a more robust summer school program and an improved virtual learning experience for students who stay with virtual classes for the foreseeable future.

The need for more counselors and psychologists is greater than ever, Berkowitz said. She called for each school to have at least one psychologist, because more students are struggling after prolonged social isolation during the pandemic.

Kristin Erdheim, a Col. Zadok Magruder High School cluster coordinator, said MCPS should establish systemic mental health screenings for all students, provide telehealth counseling and set up “phone-buddy networks among students, to identify those who might need extra support during this challenging time.”

The Montgomery County school board will hold another public hearing about the proposed budget on Jan. 19. It will hold work sessions about the budget on Thursday and on Jan. 21 and 25.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com