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Board Approves $2.2B Operating Budget Request for County Schools

Weast renews call for county aid, says programs are in jeopardy without it.

A $2.2 billion operating budget request approved by the county school board on Monday sets the stage for what could be contentious budget negotiations between the board and the County Council. 

“I’m just really concerned what it means for the long-term future of [Montgomery County Public Schools],” board President Christopher S. Barclay (Dist. 4) of Takoma Park said on Tuesday.

The fiscal 2012 operating budget request includes no new programs or initiatives but increases spending by $82 million in order to keep up with enrollment growth of more than 3,300 students this school year.

The spending plan would put the county in compliance with a state mandate that dictates that per-pupil spending remain the same or increase from one fiscal year to the next. Counties that fail to meet the requirement could face a fine.

Montgomery County faced a potential fine last year before the General Assembly passed legislation absolving the county from the penalty. This year, the county enlisted state legislators in an attempt to rewrite the so-called maintenance of effort law.

“Our issue is going to be if the council and our executive don’t come in at an [maintenance of effort] number, we have to deal with the numbers they come in with and we’re going to have to figure out how to move our schools forward,” Barclay said.

Last month, county schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast revised his initial $2.16 billion operating budget plan upward by $42 million. The revised plan used $5 million in savings from the school system’s current budget and $37 million more in state aid, due to Gov. Martin O'Malley's state budget proposal coming in at a level that was more generous than anticipated in Weast’s original proposal.

Along with the revision, Weast unveiled a list of $82 million in potential cuts, including $48 million in staff and programmatic reductions, if the county government does not meet the maintenance of effort requirement.

The list included cutting 193 teaching positions, which would increase the average class size by one student per class. It also included the elimination of Outdoor Education, of extended day and extended year programs in middle schools and of high school activity buses and cut $1 million from high school athletics.

In a news release on Monday, Weast again put the pressure on the county to ante up.

“If the county does not provide any additional local revenue to MCPS this year, we will likely have to increase class sizes even further, eliminate hundreds of teaching positions and cut some very valuable, popular programs,” he said in the release. “It is my hope that, like the governor, the county executive and the County Council will make a full commitment to education and the future of our children.”

Barclay declined to get specific about potential cuts, but said that the situation is “dire” and that potential cuts would be seen in the classroom.

“There are a variety of things that could happen,” he said, adding that school officials won’t know more about what they’re up against until County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) unveils his county budget recommendation on March 15. 

A message left for a Leggett spokesman was not immediately returned on Tuesday.

“We’re far from saying these are the exact things that will be done, one, because we don’t know what the exact [budget] number is,” Barclay said.

In the meantime, he said, the board plans to bring the school community before the council to show that “these are not wasteful dollars,” he said.

“We will testify and do all the things you need to do to get in front of them and let them know what these dollars do for young people in Montgomery County,” he said.

County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring has said that the council must consider reducing the school system’s budget request as it looks to close a $300 million county budget shortfall.

Barclay said he is sure that Ervin, a former county school board member, understands the importance of funding schools.

The issue, he said, is: “How do you come up with some real solutions? What has to happen is you have to keep talking."

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