After weathering years of contentious debate and a threatened lawsuit, leaders of Montgomery County Public Schools and the County Council say they're ready to move on and work together to serve students during trying economic times.
Members of the council and the Board of Education took questions from parents during Wednesday's Montgomery County Council of PTAs forum at Richard Montgomery High School, discussing the coming budget debate and the county's economic state.
County Councilmember Marc Elrich said he's optimistic the two groups can put their past disagreements behind them, and he has been impressed with new Superintendent Joshua Starr's commitment to reason and transparency.
"The tenor of the relationship has really changed," he said. "We're working toward a common end."
They'll have a chance to prove that soon, as the Board of Education recently approved a $2.13 billion budget request for 2013, which the County Council will vote on in May.
Board President Shirley Brandman said the request is the minimum allowed under Maryland's maintenance of effort law, and its approval is a sign of MCPS's commitment to fiscal responsibility in light of the county's economic situation.
Maintenance of effort requires that counties provide their school systems with at least as much money per student as the previous year, something Montgomery County hasn't done for the past three years.
County Council President Roger Berliner said he is pleased with the board's budget request, and that he's confident the County Council will meet maintenance of effort this year.
Standing in the way, however, are two potential expenditures that could drastically change the county's budget: a pending $26.2 million penalty from the state for not meeting maintenance of effort last year, and Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to transfer pension costs from the state to local governments.
Berliner said he is confident Montgomery County will be granted a waiver on the penalty. O'Malley's proposed budget did not include the $26.2 million, Berliner said, and there is currently a bill in the Senate to waive the penalty.
On the pension shift issue, MCPS and the County Council are united in opposition.
Brandman said that while pension costs have increased over the years, it's the state's fault for restructuring benefits in 2006 without identifying a revenue stream to support them.
County Councilmember Nancy Floreen said that if pension costs are forced upon the county, the council estimates it would have to cut up to 500 jobs to foot the bill.
"Montgomery County has nowhere to go to pick up this cost," she said. "These are serious implications."
Even if the pension shift is shot down, Montgomery County is growing, and MCPS is expecting to add more than 2,400 more students next year alone.
In order to continue to meet maintenance of effort, the county is going to have be creative with its resources, and that may include raising taxes, Elrich said.
"At some point, we have to talk revenues, and it's a difficult conversation to have," he said. "If demand continues to rise, we have to ask ourselves, 'What're we willing to do to maintain the resources we've come to value?'"
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