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Superintendent Joshua Starr unveils budget, priorities for Montgomery schools

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Montgomery County teachers would receive their first pay increase since 2009 under Joshua P. Starr’s first budget proposal as superintendent of schools.

The $2.13 billion request for the fiscal year that starts July 1, to be made public Wednesday, includes no significant program changes or increases to class size and reflects the new leader’s focus on improving instruction across the school system.

Starr’s plan represents a 2 percent increase — $41 million — over current spending, the smallest requested increase in more than a decade. The proposal accounts for a projected 2,250 new students, higher insurance and transportation costs, as well as pay increases for employees.

“The most important thing for next year is acknowledging how our employees have met the fiscal crisis,” he said. “You are only as good as your people.”

Starr plans to unveil his proposal Wednesday night at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. He previewed it for reporters Monday.

Under law, the superintendent is required to request a “maintenance of effort” budget from the county, or at least a constant level of per-student funding year to year. The county failed to make the minimum payments in recent years, and local per-student spending decreased by $1,490 over four years. Last year, the Montgomery County Council reset its annual obligation to the lower amount, arguing that it could not sustain higher funding levels after an economic downturn.

The process was contentious under former superintendent Jerry D. Weast. Starr’s entra nce signals a fresh start, and he has met with council members in his first months on the job.

“I am looking forward to a much more collaborative process this year,” said Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County), vice president of the council. “We need to deal with still-limited resources . . . but the new superintendent has signaled a willingness to work hand in hand with us.”

County budget officers said the economic outlook is improving slightly. Income tax revenue is exceeding projections for the current year, but property tax assessments are still declining.

Starr’s proposal kicks off a six-month process, and funding decisions will hinge partly on uncertain state and federal aid. The county Board of Education will hold hearings Jan. 11 and 18 before sending its budget request to the council in February.

In recent months, Starr has met with employee unions, the PTA and senior staff to review the budget. He also has toured many schools to meet with parents at “listen-and-learn” events, where he heard from hundreds who are hungry for new investment in arts programs, foreign languages and libraries after several years of cuts.

Since fiscal 2009, the school system has reduced spending by $430 million, increased class size by one student and eliminated more than 1,300 positions. Employees have not received a cost-of-living raise since summer 2008 or seniority-related “step increases” since summer 2009. The central office budget has been cut more than 20 percent.

County schools are grappling with demographic changes. The 146,000-student system is the nation’s 16th largest and growing rapidly. It added 9,000 students in the past six years, and 9,000 more are projected by 2017. Many of the newcomers are from low-income families.

Starr’s budget proposal offers an early glimpse of how he intends to lead. He plans, for example, to eliminate the Office of School Performance and create an Office of School Support.

“My theory is that our job in the central office is to serve principals, and their job is to serve teachers and kids,” he said.

A results-oriented agenda has brought success until now, he said. “The next level of work is to focus in a laser-like way on what’s happening inside schools,” he said.

His priorities are enhancing professional development, particularly as teachers adjust to national academic standards, as well as improving academic interventions for students and increasing community engagement.

But he doesn’t foresee new spending to make these things happen.

“We want to maximize what we have before we ask for more,” he said.

© The Washington Post Company