Duncan Would Fill Schools' Tall Order

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) proposed complete funding yesterday of the school system's budget request -- a $1.8 billion spending plan that will establish full-day kindergarten programs at all elementary campuses and provide more support for special education students.

"I've always put education first, because if you want to improve our community, you have to invest in our schools," he said.

Duncan's announcement drew praise from school officials, labor leaders, parents and County Council members -- many of whom spoke at the news conference at Bethesda Elementary School.

"This is a community that treasures education and puts its money where its mouth is," said council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee. "We're proud to know our kids are taken care of."

Added School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast: "Doug, you've been great. I think we do have something special here."

The event was an opportunity for Duncan to spotlight the academic progress of Montgomery County students and promote his support of education -- a major theme in his campaign to win the Democratic nomination for governor.

It was also an opportunity for Duncan and his supporters to criticize his Democratic rival in the race, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Duncan criticized the governor for not providing more money for school construction. Ehrlich has proposed $281 million in school construction -- an increase over the current $251 million.

In response to a question from a reporter, Duncan said O'Malley does not support education. "Education is not a priority for him," Duncan said. "The long-term solution to Baltimore's problems is fixing the schools."

Rick Abbruzzese, spokesman for the O'Malley campaign, said of Duncan's remarks: "It's a shame that on a day when Montgomery County should be reflecting on its commitment to their students and parents, the county executive chose instead to attack the hard-earned progress made in Baltimore under far different and far more difficult circumstances."

In the past week, Duncan also has proposed major increases for transportation and public safety spending at heavily promoted news conferences. He has not detailed how he would fund the new spending but will do so tomorrow when he releases his entire proposed budget.

At yesterday's event, Duncan was also praised by County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who spoke of his leadership and support for education.

At the same time that he announced he would fully support the Board of Education's budget request, Duncan also said he would increase funding for capital projects by $117 million. School construction projects are financed in a different budget.

Duncan was sharply criticized in January for unveiling a plan that he said offered a "record level of funding" for school construction but delayed some projects for as much as two years, angering many parents. Yesterday, school officials and parents said they were relieved that the projects would progress as scheduled.

Duncan also said he is proposing a tuition and fee freeze for students at Montgomery College.

"This is a great budget," said Charlene R. Nunley, president of Montgomery College. "This is the first time in my eight years as president that I don't have to ask my students to pay more."

In addition to more money to establish special education initiatives and full-day kindergarten at 30 more schools, for a total of 123, the budget also includes funding to create a magnet program at Poolesville High School -- the first such program in the upcounty area. The budget plan also would fund the hiring of 15 assistant elementary school principals.

Despite Duncan's pledge to fully fund the school system's budget, there could be a complication: His schools budget proposal includes $17 million that was to come from the state as a part of the geographic cost of education index, a formula that grants additional funding to school systems that have higher operating costs.

Ehrlich declined to fund the index in this year's budget, saying the funding is not required by law. Duncan said yesterday that he is counting on the legislature to ensure the money becomes available.

Duncan's 2007 operating budget will go to the County Council for consideration. Final action by the council is expected in mid-May.

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