For Council Panel, School Budget Is Now an Open Book

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007

There is life after Mike Subin on the Montgomery County Council's Education Committee.

This week, the panel, now chaired by council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), began steeping itself in the details of the school system budget, which is nearly $2 billion and accounts for about half of all county spending.

Critics of Subin, a Democratic at-large council member who was defeated in November after serving 20 years, said he often worked out the budget numbers out of public view and in concert with school officials, most recently Superintendent Jerry D. Weast and his team of budget experts. That left few opportunities for meaningful public scrutiny or input from fellow council members, the critics said.

Subin's tenure spanned four superintendents. After Weast took over the school system in 1999, the two became close, often chatting several times a day and meeting late to work out the budget details. A few years ago, they vacationed together. They were also poker buddies.

Knapp, along with several other council members who joined the committee, spent about 90 minutes Monday afternoon going over budget details with Karen Orlansky, head of the council's Office of Legislative Oversight, and Elaine Bonner-Tompkins, a senior analyst. At the council's request, the legislative oversight office created a document that outlined "key indicators" the council might want to look at as members try to scrutinize the school system's budget proposal.

Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said that she thought Orlansky's shop had created a useful document, but that she was still worried about the council's ability to unravel the mysteries of the school system budget without further information.

"Are we asking the right questions?" she wondered. Among the missing details, she said, were data showing "how much we spend on people who are instructors of children." Council President Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) said she was curious about school system claims in recent years that officials had reduced administrative costs, and wondered if the money saved had been absorbed elsewhere in the system.

Council newcomer Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), a member of the committee, wondered how best to measure poverty and its impact on education. And she asked whether the council might be moving too close to the purview of the Board of Education. She was a member of the board until running for the council last fall. "How deep are we going?" she asked, pointing out that she had done a tour on the school board.

The Education Committee, which also includes Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), got about halfway through the spending list and plans to reconvene next Thursday.

A Run for Rockville Mayor

Susan R. Hoffmann, a third-term member of the Rockville City Council, is the first of several local lawmakers to formally announce her candidacy for Rockville mayor to succeed incumbent Larry Giammo, who has decided against seeking a fourth term.

Hoffmann has had close political ties to former county executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and former County Council member Steven A. Silverman (D). Her council position is part time, as is the mayor's job, which gave Duncan a launching pad for his first run for county executive in 1994. Hoffmann's day job is manager of marketing and communications in the Silver Spring Regional Services Center, the county's office serving Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

Others said to be contemplating the top spot in City Hall are council members Robert E. Dorsey and Phyllis Marcuccio, as well as community activist Drew Powell. The city leadership positions are nonpartisan.

Democrats Pick Obama

On the national front, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) won a straw poll Sunday at the Montgomery County Democrats' annual brunch. Of the approximately 250 votes cast (yes, the ballots were paper), Obama pulled 35 percent.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton got 28 percent; former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards17 percent; and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson13 percent. Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and U.S. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio trailed with less than 10 percent each.

The theme of the brunch was "Democrats: Marching Orders, One Band, One Sound." Hope springs eternal for the often fractious crowd.

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