Montgomery says it would rather pay penalty than comply with education law

In a maneuver with implications for local schools and labor politics, the Montgomery County Council announced Thursday that it would rather pay a multimillion dollar penalty than comply with what officials consider unreasonable state education spending requirements.

Facing a $300 million budget deficit, council members are trying to spread this year’s budget pain beyond the county government to Montgomery’s public school system, a controversial move in a county where officials and the broader public generally consider stellar schools the top priority.

Montgomery’s school budget is set to increase in the budget year that starts July 1 because of a rise in state funding to help deal with growing enrollments. But with council officials considering cuts in human services, fire and rescue, and other budgets, they have been pushing the school system to accept more of that burden. For example, they want school employees to accept cuts in benefits to help offset sharp reductions in health and retirement benefits proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).

A council move Thursday marked a turning point in that broader debate. A unanimous council — joined reluctantly by Leggett — sent a letter to the Maryland State Board of Education saying it will not seek a waiver from the state’s “maintenance of effort law,” which requires local governments to spend at least as much per pupil from year to year. The county’s move is essentially an acknowledgment that it isn’t going to follow the rule.

Estimates of the penalty for failing to keep up in next year’s budget range from $26 million to more than $29 million, officials said. The county successfully lobbied in Annapolis to delay any potential penalty for a year and said it would continue fighting against it. Leggett had argued against the letter because of his concerns about the penalty, officials said, but he agreed to present a united front.

Montgomery officials argue that they have exceeded that minimum spending amount by hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade and should be given flexibility in unusually tough budget times. But schools officials say they need more funds to maintain excellence in the growing system.

Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), a former school board member, said the county must, in essence, reset per-pupil spending at a lower level so that an expanding school budget doesn’t starve the rest of county government.

Board of Education President Christopher S. Barclay (Silver Spring) said the move was a disappointing and costly violation of state law.

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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