Montgomery County schools chief proposes $2.28 billion budget, with spending increases


Joshua Starr, the new Montgomery County schools superintendent, has proposed a $2.28 billion budget for the next fiscal year, adding 340 new positions and boosting spending by $56.4 million. Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post) (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Montgomery County’s schools chief proposed a $2.28 billion budget for next fiscal year, adding 340 positions and boosting spending in Maryland’s largest school district by $56.4 million.

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr released his recommendations Thursday at a Board of Education meeting. He said his planned 2.5 percent budget increase would address a major surge in student enrollment, help narrow the achievement gap and prepare students for “the new” at a time of changes in curriculum and modern workplace expectations.

The proposal, which does not include costs that could result from labor contracts now being negotiated, comes in at $17.4 million above a state-mandated minimum funding requirement.

Starr could face a high bar in justifying that overage to county officials, who last year rejected his request to go $10 million above the minimum and urged the district to use its cash reserves for the extra spending.

Under state law, the county’s per-pupil education spending must, at the minimum, stay constant, and county leaders have resisted locking in increases that affect future years.

Starr defended the request and said that without such investment in schools, it is hard to support the level of excellence in Montgomery. “So much has been cut for so long,” Starr told reporters.

Montgomery County Council President Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) said Tuesday that he would read Starr’s proposal closely but that any request above the required minimum is a concern.

“It has long-standing implications that go beyond that year’s budget,” Rice said.

Schools officials said the county has funded its school system at the minimum — or below it, sometimes getting waivers from the state — for the past five years amid the fallout of the recession. Montgomery spends about $1,500 less per student than it did five years ago, they said.

The funding increase requests include nearly $22 million for additional staff tied to enrollment growth and $24 million for current employee salaries and benefits. An additional $11.8 million largely would cover new initiatives.

Starr’s proposal lays out a plan for Montgomery amid a period of rapid growth and change. Despite the county’s reputation for affluence, its school enrollment is increasingly poor, with 35 percent of students now receiving free and reduced-price meals at school. The system has 151,300 students, up nearly 14,000 since 2007, and further growth is projected.

The budget plan also comes a week after new figures showed a growing achievement gap on Advanced Placement exams. Last year, the council was focused on the achievement gap as members debated the school district’s budget, with several saying they expected to see more progress.

Although more county students than ever took AP tests in the spring, the percentage of exams with college-ready scores fell, ­especially among African American and Latino students.

Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Midcounty) said that she would not reject a proposed increase out of hand but that she will be eyeing initiatives that address the achievement gap. “If we’re going to add resources, how will the money be spent? The answer has to be very robust and very high-impact,” she said.

Starr told reporters that addressing the gap is a priority and that his proposal addresses the persistent problem in a number of ways.

One of the new programs in the budget is an $800,000 effort to encourage exemplary teachers to move to or remain in high-needs schools, with salary supplements for up to 250 teachers.

Middle schools are a key focus of Starr’s budget for a second year, according to schools officials, with $1.45 million set aside for 21 teachers to support instruction for ­English-language learners.

On the high school level, $977,000 would go toward “focus” teachers who would help reduce the sizes of English and math classes in the neediest schools. Also, $997,000 would be steered toward reducing teaching loads for high school department heads and staff development teachers so they can do more planning, coaching and professional learning.

“We know to improve high schools you have to have really strong department heads, resource teachers,” Starr said.

The new positions in Starr’s budget include 178 elementary teachers and secondary teachers, 75 positions related to special education and eight teachers to support English-language learners.

About $3 million would largely go toward purchasing tablet computers to help with instruction and new computer-based assessments.

At elementary schools, $542,000 would help restore positions that have been eliminated at smaller schools, and $456,000 would go toward “compacted” math for the most accelerated fifth-grade students.

The budget proposal is based on an estimate of $14 million in state funding, a number that will become clearer early next year.

Starr developed his proposal after meetings with the district’s three employee unions and representatives of its council of PTAs. Focus groups and special budget teams also contributed.

The process that started with Starr’s proposal will continue through the spring. Budget hearings are set for January, and a board vote is expected Feb. 11.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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