Montgomery County set to give public schools $50 million over state minimum

Through a series of unusual accounting maneuvers, the Montgomery County Council is set to give the school system its full $2.3 billion budget request for fiscal year 2015, but without triggering the requirements of a state law that requires the extra money to be built into next year’s minimum funding.

Every year, school spending is by far the most politically fraught piece of the council’s budget deliberations. Election years, with endorsements and votes on the table, are the most fraught of all.

An iron triangle of players — Superintendent Joshua Starr and the Board of Education, the teachers union and parent groups — presses for funding above the minimum mandated by state law, known as “maintenance of effort,” or MOE. It requires that schools receive, at a minimum, the same rate of per-pupil funding as in the previous year. The law also provides that funding over MOE become part of the mandated minimum for the following year.

In fat economic times, the council routinely exceeded MOE. But during the recession and its aftermath, as budgets tightened, MOE became a source of tension. This year, the school system asked for $51.7 million over MOE.

County Executive Isiah Leggett’s proposed 2015 budget gave Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) $26 million in county funds over the MOE threshold. He also proposed adding another $11 million from the unspent MCPS general fund balance (money that doesn’t count against the MOE limit).

Under a plan from Council President Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), the council would shift the $26 million under Leggett’s proposal to a health-care trust account for retired MCPS employees — and add $13.3 million from a projected surplus in current health-care funds. Use of these funds would not reset next year’s MOE base.

This would give MCPS the extra money to use for educational purposes. Rice is scheduled to announce the plan Monday morning at a meeting of the council’s education committee.

The plan would violate one of the basic tenets of budgeting: putting “one-time” funds into ongoing expenses. But with the iron triangle closing in, council members seem to be willing to worry about that next year.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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