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Posted at 10:26 AM ET, 12/07/2011

New Montgomery superintendent kicks off potentially more peaceful budget process

Josh Starr will present his first budget request as superintendent of Montgomery schools tonight at Richard Montgomery High School.

I got a preview earlier this week.

Budget negotiations promise to be less contentious this year with a new superintendent and with officially reduced expectations for local funding.

The county is supposed to provide a constant level of funding
Council member Valerie Ervin (D) said, “Working collaboratively with the Board of Education and Superintendent, I am hopeful that we can strike the right balance moving forward.” (Timothy Jacobsen)
year-to-year under the state’s maintenance of effort law. But last year, after failing to meet pre-recession spending levels for three years, the council pushed to reset its baseline of local funding to an amount nearly $1,500 per student lower than the high point four years ago.

The “re-basing” went ahead despite loud protests from the school board and the teachers unions, and it’s a big reason why Starr’s requested funding increase is the lowest in more than 10 years.

Maintenance of effort was not the only flash point during last year’s budget negotiations. Tempers flared near the end of the process, when school officials announced a $21 million surplus in health insurance reserves, which they used to avoid a proposed increase in premiums.

County members were furious about the late revelation, and accused the district of hiding money or managing a slush fund.

The council commissioned the Office of Legislative Oversight to investigate the matter; its report was released last week.

The report confirmed what school officials had said -- that the surplus was attributable to lower-than-projected health care claims. But it also found that school officials would have been aware of the surplus by February or March. They announced the extra money in June.

The report also suggested a more regular schedule for reporting budgeted vs. actual expenditures in health insurance or pension funds, to prevent another 11th hour maelstrom.

Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) said the report cleared the air, by detailing how the surplus came about but also confirmed the school system’s lack of transparency about it. “The superintendent knew about the fund all along, but that information was never shared,”she said.

In a press release announcing the report, she struck a more optimistic tone about future negotiations:

“Working collaboratively with the Board of Education and Superintendent, I am hopeful that we can strike the right balance moving forward,” she said.

By  |  10:26 AM ET, 12/07/2011

 
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