Montgomery school officials spoke out Tuesday in support of an education funding bill being debated in Annapolis that would secure a steady flow of local education dollars year after year.
Officials argued that education funding is an investment in the future workforce and wealth of the community and that it occupies a special legal status.
“The constitution guarantees funding for education; It does not speak to libraries or firefighters. It does not speak to police. While they are necessary parts to having a civilized, efficient, well-run county, they are not guaranteed in the Maryland constitution,” said board member Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) at a board meeting Tuesday.
The Montgomery County Council reduced its per pupil spending for three years running as it tried to balance the needs of public safety and other social services with those of the 146,000-student school system.
Amending the nearly three-decade-old law that requires local counties to provide at least a constant amount of per pupil funding each year in exchange for increasing state aid has become the subject of increasing debate in recent years as county governments have grappled with declining revenues.
The senate bill, which may be voted on this week, would make it harder for counties to do that in the future. It spells out steps for a local government to apply for waivers given difficult economic circumstances, but it would also give them the ability to go beyond existing property tax caps to fund education and it would allow the state to seize local income tax dollars and shift them to he school board if the county fails to meet its funding obligations.
Board of Education president Shirley Brandman (At Large) said that the bill reflects a “deep commitment to education,” while still providing measures of accountability and flexibility.
Meanwhile the county council has argued that such a law, if passed, would infringe on local control. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) have visited Annapolis to argue forcefully against it.
Montgomery school and county leaders have - until recently - been unified in opposition to another proposal in Annapolis to shift the costs of teachers pensions, which have historically been covered by the state, to localities. This change could add $14 million to Montgomery County’s tab for next year, while local leaders are still trying to bridge a more than $100 million budget gap.
That solidarity appears to be breaking down. Leggett and Berliner sent a letter to the Montgomery County delegation in Annapolis on Monday backtracking on their position against the pension shift and urging the state to require the county and the school board share the costs if a shift is inevitable.
In the current proposal, the teacher pension costs would be over and above the county’s other school spending obligations.
School board members protested Tuesday. They argued that they don’t have the ability to raise revenues, so extra costs would inevitably lead to cuts in services.
Board of Education Vice President Christopher S. Barclay (Silver Spring), said he’s not willing to give up opposition to the shift in costs.
“I think we have to continue to push to show that that’s not what we are doing.... I’m concerned [the council] is basically giving in,” he said.