Montgomery council and schools spar over Leggett spending plan

March 15, 2011

There were plenty of warm words when Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett presented the county council with his $4.35 billion budget proposal Tuesday. Despite a series of tough cuts and controversial benefits proposals, one council member praised his “thoughtful approach.” Another called it “well-rounded.” Several commended Leggett for facing long-term problems.

“I don’t see the council radically changing the budget,” said council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large). “On the surface, it seems to be balanced the right way. There’s no magical thinking. There’s no unrealistic revenue assumptions.”

But that remarkable initial bout of harmony between council and executive offered a stark contrast to the deep disagreements and heightened rhetoric found elsewhere. The budget proposal has sparked a nasty fight between the council, which controls county spending, and Montgomery County Public Schools, which receives the biggest share of the budget. Leggett’s proposal, particularly his efforts to have employees pay more for health-care and retirement costs, also has angered union leaders.

School district leaders say Leggett’s budget, which does not provide $82 million in additional county funds that schools requested, threatens to undermine educational progress.

“I think that every child will be impacted,” said Christopher Barclay, president of the Board of Education.

Because of a boost in money from the state, overall schools funding would increase. But enrollment is up by 3,300 students, and the absence of additional county dollars could mean larger class sizes and reductions in the number of teachers who reach out to children who need extra attention, Barclay said.

“It’s the support you can give to young people who may be on the cusp,” Barclay said, such as students struggling to move from “basic” to “proficient” in a subject. “We just won’t have as much of that support as we’ve had in the past.”

‘Hardball takes two sides’

Barclay said a key objective is to prevent the council from reducing the $1.42 billion in county funds Leggett proposes for the schools. “If we go below that number . . . we are going to see some serious damage,” Barclay said.

Council members defended Leggett’s overall approach, though they are weighing the precise figure. But the council, led by Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), is proposing a budget-related change that already is riling schools officials.

Several council members said they were frustrated that only about a third of the overall county workforce would be affected by Leggett’s proposed changes in medical insurance. Leggett wants the county to pay 70 percent of county workers’ health-care premiums, not 80 percent as it does today. But about two-thirds of the county workforce is in the school system, which decides such benefits matters on its own.

That raises questions of equity among county workers, and also saves less money for the county, which is a key reason for pursuing such benefits changes, some officials said.

“I just don’t think we can continue to increase the disparity between school-bus drivers and Ride On bus drivers. I don’t see how we justify that,” said council member George Leventhal (D-At Large).

There is also some resentment among council members because the school board has been pressing for a state ruling that would undercut council power.

Earlier this month, the school board submitted a legal filing with the Maryland State Board of Education as part of a dispute over the county’s violation of state spending rules. The board is essentially arguing that the council is toothless to cut school funding below the figure proposed by Leggett. Ervin registered her “extreme disappointment” with that maneuver.

“The school system believes it can play hardball with us. Hardball takes two sides. I don’t have to vote for the budget, and neither do my colleagues,” Leventhal said. “An obvious alternative is, we wouldn’t provide them with a budget.”

Sizing the pots

Ervin and other officials think they have found a way to force the benefits and equity issue with the school board. After council members set the size of the school budget, they appropriate the money into spending categories. The council can’t tell the schools how to spend the money in each different pot, but it can can determine the size of those pots, Ervin said.

So the council is considering reducing the size of the schools’ budget category covering employee benefits. The goal, Ervin said, would be to pressure schools officials to accept benefits changes similar to those proposed by Leggett.

Schools officials are not happy.

“I think it’s petulant — or some other word — for another body to come in and supercede the school board’s judgment,” said Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. “I don’t think just because somebody’s political feelings are hurt, they need to be telling the school board how to spend the money.”

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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