The Montgomery County Board of Education unanimously approved the final $2.32 billion Operating Budget which none of the Board members liked and at least two said they had contemplated voting against. The reason for the possible dissention is that the approved budget required difficult cuts to close a $53 million shortfall. The Board approved the budget at a meeting held Tuesday, June 16.
In order to meet the budget passed by the Montgomery County Council in May, the Board approved the elimination of more than 380 positions and reductions to the budgets for the district’s technology initiative, professional development, textbooks, and many other areas.
“This is not the budget we wanted, but it is the budget we have,” said Board President Patricia B. O’Neill. “Lagging revenue in the county and lower-than-expected funding from the state required us to make some difficult choices. While we tried to minimize the impact these reductions will have in the classroom, there is no doubt that the cuts will impact every school in our district.”
The board hard testimony earlier in the meeting from Nicole Little-Cook, the library media specialist at Seneca Valley High School who urged the Board to restore funds for library media specialists. Little-Cook spoke about the impact the staff cuts would have on the media center in the Germantown high school and high schools throughout the school district.
“Among the 109 school-based supporting staff positions being eliminated are 32 media assistants, including 16 at the high school level,” Little-Cook told the Board. “Roughly half of our high schools will not have a full-time media assistant next year. The schools taking the biggest hits and that will be most understaffed include schools with our neediest student populations.”
Little-Cook told the Board, “It breaks my heart that I will only be able to keep the library media center open for 15 minutes after school each day, as opposed to 1 hour and 20 minutes now. There will be times when we will need to close during the school day. And how is it fair that this will be the situation at Seneca, Einstein, Kennedy, Springbrook, and Wheaton, but not at Whitman, Wootton, Churchill, or Walter Johnson?”
Interim Superintended of Schools Larry Bowers said the allocation of media assistants is based on projected enrollment for schools.
“I don’t want to pit schools against each other because the staffing allocation at the larger schools is still inadequate to meet the needs of the sheer volume of students they serve,” Little-Cook said, “But I hope you will recognize that these cuts are not equitable; in the schools with the highest FARMS rates and where our students need the most support, our staffing has been cut to a point below the minimum threshold at which we are able to provide basic services.”
While Board members sympathized with Little-Cook, the budget including the 109 support staff reductions was unanimously approved. Bowers said that staff reductions will include 71 elementary school teachers, 45 middle school teachers, and 54 high school teachers, as well as 20 ESOL teachers. 52.6 special education teachers and para-educators. The cuts will also include 17 special programs/staff development teachers, and four administrators.
O’Neill said the decision by Governor Larry Hogan, Jr., not to fully fund public education this year made a difficult budget year even harder. For FY 2016, Governor Hogan did not fully fund the Geographic Cost of Education Index, which provides additional funds to districts, like Montgomery County, where it is more expensive to provide an education. The legislature had identified funds that the Governor could have used to restore cuts to GCEI, but he declined to do so, costing MCPS $17 million in state aid.
“The governor’s decision to cut funding will have a direct impact on our schools next year,” O’Neill said. “His decision was penny wise and pound foolish, because an investment in education is an investment in the future of Montgomery County and the state of Maryland. It is my hope the governor will make different choices in the future.”
The FY 2016 Operating Budget for MCPS is funded at the minimum level required by state law, called Maintenance of Effort, which requires that counties provide the same local funding per student from year to year. With enrollment expected to increase by more than 2,500 students next school year, the MCPS budget will increase by about 1.6 percent in FY 2016. However, MOE does not take into account the increased costs of doing business, inflation, employee salary increases, or the fact that more students are coming to MCPS needing services and support in order to ensure success.
“The county executive and the Montgomery County Council had to make some difficult decisions this year due to fiscal uncertainties and stagnant local revenue,” said Bowers. “But it is important to recognize that a Maintenance of Effort budget is not a same services budget. For FY 2016, a MOE budget really means a $50 million cut.”
“I seriously considered voting no on this budget,” said At-Large Board member Phillip Kaufman. “Not because I don’t think this is the fairest allocation of the resources we have, but I think we need to be sending the strongest possible message to our funders, whether or not it is the State or the County, that the resources we are providing are not meeting the needs of our students.”
“I am hesitant to raise my hand in favor of this budget,” said Rebecca Smondrowski, the Board Member from District 2, which represents the southern portion of Germantown. She went on to say, “While I will be raising my hand to vote for this budget, I am very sad to see things like the Chromebooks being delayed and positions being cut.”
The reduction of staffing is one way that MCPS is attempting to close the budget gap, another is to curtail or eliminate the rollout of a technology to County classrooms.
In the 2014-2015 school year, MCPS launched an ambitious and successful technology initiative that placed devices — mainly Chromebook laptops — in all Grade 3, 5, and 6 classrooms as well as high school social studies classes. The plan for the 2015-2016 school year was to purchase more devices for Grades 2, 4 and 7, and one other high school subject.
However, given the budget concerns, the district will not purchase any additional Chromebooks with operating budget funds in FY 2016, saving $3 million. Some devices may be purchased out of capital budget funds, but it will not be enough to support full implementation of the initiative.
The cuts will also hurt current MCPS employees’ wallets as increases will be pushed back for one week.
MCPS employees will receive compensation increases that were agreed to in their contracts. However, implementation of these increases will be delayed by one pay period, from October 3, 2015, to October 17, 2015, saving more than $3 million in FY 2016. The MCPS employee associations are in the process of ratifying this change to the contracts.
Under the three-year contracts approved in March 2014, MCPS employees are scheduled to receive a 2 percent cost of living increase next school year, and eligible employees will move up a step on the salary scale. These modest increases come as the district is requiring employees to pay a greater share of their health insurance premiums, according to MCPS.
The budget shortfall may have long reaching effects on the district as other strategic initiatives are being scaled back or removed from the budget. The superintendent’s original Operating Budget recommendation included more than $8.2 million in strategic investments aimed at enhancing efforts to narrow the achievement gap and prepare students for the 21st century. The Board’s budget request eliminated $5.7 million of that amount, and Bowers is recommending cutting it by another $1.2 million. This will leave only $1.3 million in enhancements. The Board also cut $2 million each from the budgets for professional development and textbooks, and made several other reductions to important programs and initiatives.
The Board also is reducing its contribution to employee pension plans by $10.5 million. While the Board will still contribute enough to keep funding at the level required by the annual actuarial valuation, the Board was hoping to make a larger contribution in order to improve the funded ratio of the pension plan.
Bowers also is recommending cuts to the budgets for professional development, textbooks, and other important programs and initiatives.
Last week, Bowers said he expects the MCPS FY 2017 Operating Budget to be even more challenging. The FY 2016 budget was partially funded by one-time revenue sources that may not be available next year, including $33 million in budget savings realized through hiring and expenditure restrictions put in place last November. For FY 2017, Bowers expects the MCPS Operating Budget to increase by nearly 5 percent due to enrollment growth of more than 2,000 students, inflationary increases, some modest enhancements, and increased salary and benefit costs.
“A minimum Maintenance of Effort budget is not going to be sufficient in the future,” said Bowers.
At Tuesday’s meeting Board Member Christopher Barclay said, “I remember a time when Maintenance of Effort was the floor to which the school district’s budget would fall, now it has become the ceiling.”
Maryland’s Maintenance of Effort law requires the same level of local funding per student from one year to the next, however, it does not provide for the same level of services, let alone allow for modest enhancements. It does not account for increasing costs, inflation, pay increases for employees, or the fact that more students are coming to MCPS needing services and support to ensure their success.
FY 2016 is the seventh consecutive year that the Montgomery County Council has funded MCPS at or below the minimum funding level of MOE. In that time, MCPS has had to eliminate more than 1,800 positions, according to the school district.
“Going forward, a MOE budget really means a $50 million reduction every year,” Bowers said. “I do not believe we can cut any more positions without impacting our ability to prepare our students to thrive in their futures.”