Budget scenario bleak for Montgomery schools

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Montgomery County school system might be forced to increase class sizes and eliminate hundreds of teaching and staff positions if schools don't receive the minimum funding set by Maryland law next year, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast warned at the beginning of what is likely to be a bitter budget battle.

Weast presented the Board of Education with a $2.2 billion budget proposal Tuesday that would increase education spending by $25 million, about 1 percent, and not require any staff cuts.

Under the economic circumstances, the proposal is austere but not terribly painful. However, its foundation rests on whether cash-strapped state and county authorities waive the state's "maintenance of effort" law that sets a minimum level of education spending.

"The budget is bare bones, you know, but what we need to sustain the system," said school board President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). "Obviously we would all like to be in gravy time, but we're not."

Weast said he believes his funding is in jeopardy, and that it could have dire effects on the budget of the state's largest school system.

"I guess what I'm trying to tell you is that there's ice in the shipping lanes and there are a lot of icebergs," he said at a press briefing.

The county could be allowed to reduce education spending because of the economy, and the state could cut into the geographic cost of education index, a mechanism for funding more expensive counties. Other issues, such as negotiations with the teachers union, haven't been resolved, Weast said.

Attempting to illustrate what might happen if he lost a hypothetical $43 million in funding, Weast offered a list of 21 potential cuts that included the elimination of 534 positions.

The largest single item by far was increasing class sizes by an average of one student per class at each school level. He said this would reduce staffing by 240 classroom teacher positions and save $15.4 million. An additional $6 million cut would eliminate 30 positions in central administration. Transportation of students to optional regular education programs could also be hit, eliminating 65 positions and saving $4.9 million.

These cuts would come on top of about $200 million in cuts over the previous two years, Weast said. Those savings included county employees forgoing their cost-of-living salary increases, hiring freezes and the elimination of more than 120 central office positions.

"The list of potential cuts will trigger huge alarm in the community," O'Neill said. "But it has to be put out there now, because people need to be aware of the potential damages."

Weast said he hoped the seriousness of the potential cuts, which he said could hurt Montgomery's academic performance, would mobilize public support for education spending.

"I think it's very naive of anyone to believe that you can get something for nothing when it comes to a kid's education," Weast said. "I certainly believe the parents and citizens of this county will do everything they can do."

Kay Romero, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said the possibility of cuts could both shock and galvanize parents.

"This is gonna be a painful, painful process," she said. "We cut so much last year. There's only so much you can cut until you're not delivering services to children. . . . You want to see the budget fully funded, you've got to be there and put children's faces to the money. There's no more being on the sidelines."

Whether Weast will have to turn to his list of possible cuts is up to the politicians. When the county government asked the State Board of Education for a waiver of the education funding law this year, it was rejected. It remains unlikely that the board would grant a waiver to the county in the coming year without a worsening of economic conditions or a change in the political landscape.

"I couldn't imagine them granting a waiver," Romero said. "If they didn't grant one last year, why would they grant one this year? But you never know."

That leaves state and county lawmakers, some of whom have pushed for changes to the law to introduce greater flexibility in funding education during tough times.

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