School Decisions Divide Officials In Montgomery

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

The Montgomery County Board of Education is locked in an increasingly bitter power struggle with County Council members seeking additional oversight of the school system's multibillion-dollar budget.

In the wake of an inspector general's report that accused the board and Superintendent Jerry D. Weast of misleading the public over the proposed relocation of Seven Locks Elementary School, some council members are calling for more transparency on school system spending.

Many council members say they are not even sure what's in the school system's budget, which includes $1.7 billion for annual operating expenses and a five-year, $1.2 billion plan for building and renovating schools.

"What the [inspector general's] report says is they are not providing us the whole picture," said County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large).

Some school board members have accused council members of orchestrating a "power grab" designed to boost their own political fortunes while undermining the education of 140,000 students.

Sharon W. Cox (D-At Large), the board's vice president, said in an interview that the council is trying to seize control of the school budget so it can divide it up as it does with pork-barrel projects.

"This issue of accountability is a cover for an excuse to usurp the nonpartisan school board and turn school facilities into political favors," Cox said.

Montgomery's school system receives 75 percent of its funding from the county. The nine-member council broadly appropriates county money to the independently elected school board, which then makes specific spending decisions.

In 2004, the council agreed to a request from the school board and Weast to relocate the aging Seven Locks Elementary to help ease crowding at nearby Potomac Elementary. System officials said that move would be cheaper than adding onto and renovating the existing building at Seven Locks Road in Bethesda. The council approved a plan to spend $14 million to build the replacement school on Kendale Road, about 1 1/2 miles away.

The council is scheduled to hold a hearing tonight on the school board's request for an additional $3.3 million to complete the project. But council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), citing community opposition, wants to kill the plan so the school can be rebuilt on its existing site. Denis said the school board's decision to move the school was based on incomplete and misleading information.

School board member Stephen N. Abrams (Rockville-Potomac) said the council wants "to take the place of the Board of Education."

For years, the council, Weast and the school board have had a comfortable relationship. Council members, mindful of residents' desire for a top-ranked school system, have been quick to approve most of the board's budget requests in recent years, including a 65 percent increase in school funding since Weast became superintendent in 1999.

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