In unveiling his fiscal 2012 operating budget proposal on Tuesday, County Executive Isiah Leggett did what he said he would: The $4.35 billion spending plan does not include any increase in county aid for the 144,000-student school system.
In December, county schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast proposed a $2.16 billion budget plan for the 2011-2012 school year that called for an $82 million increase in county aid over the current budget.
The increase would keep the county in compliance with the state's maintenance of effort law, which requires that per-pupil spending remain the same or increase from one fiscal year to the next.
Leggett’s plan assumes a 3.5 percent increase of state and federal spending for county schools—about $67.7 million. But it includes no increase in county aid. Leggett said last month that in order to bridge a $300 million county budget gap schools could not go unscathed.
Without the $82 million, the school system, which saw enrollment increase by more than 3,300 students this year, could be subject to a fine for violating the state funding mandate.
The county has no choice but to continue to push the General Assembly and state school board for relief from the funding requirement, Leggett said on Tuesday.
That board can grant the county a waiver from the requirement. Meanwhile, county officials have traveled to Annapolis to speak in favor of a bill that would make it easier to receive a waiver.
On Tuesday, Weast said that Leggett’s budget proposal was as expected.
“It’s been plain to me that we weren’t going to get any maintenance of effort, at least recommended, from either the council or the county executive,” he said. “It remains to be seen whether we’ll get a waiver on that, legislatively or at the state board. I have to make the assumption that we’ll be fined.”
Drawing a line in the sand
In a speech outlining his budget plan, Leggett drew a line on any further cuts to the school system’s budget request, saying that it could subject the county to a fine “anywhere from $22 million to $66 million” from the state board.
“We simply cannot below this $82 million,” he said. “I would fight any changes to drop below this number. It is simply too risky, too difficult for us to do and will have, in my opinion, dire consequences.”
While further cuts could erode the quality of county schools, it also could make it tougher to make a case for a waiver to cut the budget below last year’s funding levels, Leggett said.
Weast said he respects Leggett and understands “the magnitude” of the county’s budget.
“And we’ll deal with it,” he said. “But we can’t go any lower. He’s drawn that line in the sand. I agree with him.”
In January, Weast released a list of $82 million in potential cuts that he would present to the county board if Leggett’s proposal did not meet the state funding mandate.
Just what will be preserved and what will be cut won’t be known until May 19, when the County Council is scheduled to approve the fiscal 2012 operating budget, Weast said.
“Some of the challenges we have right now is every penny gasoline or petroleum goes up, that’s a $33,000 increase,” he said. “We’re losing money everyday on our buses.”
Another challenge: A projected enrollment increase of up to 2,400 students for next school year with no new county aid to pay for them.
“We don’t have a snow removal [fund],” Weast said, referring to $10 million that Leggett included in the budget for snow removal—money that potentially could be used elsewhere in the budget if it goes unspent next winter.
Parents and the county board react
Montgomery County Council of PTAs President Kristin Trible issued a statement calling the budget proposal “disappointing.”
With school enrollment projected to increase in August, “this proposed budget effectively recommends drastic cuts to our students’ education—with potential consequences that include larger class sizes, elimination of courses, and reduction in key security, maintenance, and building service staff that make our school environments secure and livable,” Trible said.
It’s not just the numbers, but also the needs of incoming students—who are increasingly from low-income households, including many who have limited English skills—that concerns county school board President Christopher S. Barclay.
“We see growth in the schools and many of the young people that are coming are young people who will need a lot of support,” said Barclay (Dist. 4) of Takoma Park. “We’re also having to cut in some areas that make the difference in being able to be as successful as we have been.”
Barclay predicted “significant cuts” effecting “every child in the school system.”
That could range from larger class sizes to the elimination of the Outdoor Education program, reducing security staff and academic intervention teachers and cutting instrumental music in elementary schools.
So far, school officials have struck a more conciliatory tone in dealing with the county than during last year’s budget deliberations when school officials threatened to sue the council if it cut school aid below the amount proposed by Leggett.
Still, last week, The Gazette reported that attorneys for the county school board sent a memo to the state Board of Education earlier this month asking that the state board intervene in the county budget process by ruling that the County Council cannot fund schools below the level required by the maintenance of effort law and cannot reduce Leggett’s budget request for schools.
Barclay said that the school board asked for its request to be expedited because it did not want to impede the budget decisions of the County Council.
On Tuesday, Weast teed off not on the council, but on the maintenance of effort law, saying that it’s the schools that are penalized when the county doesn’t ante up.
“I don’t know if there’s any chance at a waiver, but there should be,” he said. “I mean the most ridiculous thing that I’ve faced in my 35 years as a superintendent is when somebody else doesn’t pay the bill we get the fine. If that wasn’t absurd it would be close to insane.”
During his 12 years as superintendent, Weast has led a charge that has grown the school system’s operating budget to unprecedented levels. Now, in his final months as superintendent, he is experiencing a new first.
Even with a waiver to the state requirement “that means that we have no [new] money from the locals,” Weast said. “And that’s unprecedented. It’s been a long time since that’s occurred.”