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County Won't Seek Waiver From School Funding Rule

Schools could lose $29 million in state aid for the 2012-2013 school year as a result.

Montgomery County will not pursue a waiver from a school funding requirement and faces a $29 million penalty from the state.

County Executive Isiah Leggett joined with the County Council in sending a two-sentence letter to the state school board on Thursday saying that the county would not pursue a waiver from the state mandate. The mandate requires that per-pupil funding of schools by county governments remain the same or increase from one fiscal year to the next.

The decision represents an about-face for Leggett (D), who had pursued a strategy of not funding county schools at the level necessary to meet the state requirement while pushing for a waiver and a legislative remedy.

Leggett said Thursday that he signed on to the letter in order to move the county budget process forward after it became clear that the council would not go along with a waiver request.

“Basically, there was some disagreement,” Leggett said. “In order to go forward you need both the county executive and the County Council to pursue this [waiver].”

Leggett’s $4.35 billion county operating budget proposal for fiscal 2012, which begins July 1.

The county school board  in order to keep up with enrollment that is expect to grow by 2,400 students in for the 2011-2012 school year. That increase would have met the state funding requirement.

The County Council was unanimous in its decision not to pursue the waiver to the funding requirement.

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, the council said that the school system’s budget would increase in fiscal 2012—though not to the level requested by school officials—at a time when the budgets of other county departments are being cut.

“We take this step so that we can create a stable, sustainable future for our schools and all county agencies ...,” the statement said. “Our goal is to protect classroom instruction while ensuring that scarce resources are available for all of our critical priorities—including safety net human services, public safety, and other vital parts of county government.”

The fact that the waiver process and county budget deliberations happen at the same time has left the county in limbo when it comes to the schools budget in the past two years, Leggett said.

“The current process does not have the level of predictability,” he said. “We may not have success with it. Each and every year you’re going back and forth and you look at the budget, you’re still waiting to see whether you will get the waiver, what the impact of that will be and it just continues from there.”

Leggett and members of the County Council and county school board have traveled to Annapolis in recent years to press the General Assembly for changes to the funding law.

“There are some strong arguments, I think on both sides of the issue,” Leggett said on Thursday. “We’ve [applied for a waiver] the last two years. Doing it three years, presents some challenges for us to be successful.”

The General Assembly did not eliminate the requirement this year, but instead changed the law so that the financial penalty would apply to the year after the violation.

In this case, the $29 million that the county would lose in state aid would apply to the 2012-2013 school year.

At in Rockville earlier this month, school board President Christopher S. Barclay (Dist. 4) of Takoma Park said that without the $82 million increase schools face the prospects of larger class sizes and a variety of cuts, including the elimination of Outdoor Education, fewer security guards and academic intervention teachers and cuts to instrumental music in elementary schools.

It is unclear what the additional loss of $29 million will mean for the school system of 144,000 students and 200 schools.

Barclay did not immediately return a call for comment on Friday.

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