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Montgomery schools budget passes with modest spending hike

 Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast fears penalties if the approved budget is cut.
Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast fears penalties if the approved budget is cut. (Nikki Kahn/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Montgomery County Board of Education unanimously approved a budget Wednesday that would modestly increase education spending next school year, but members said that it was just the first step in what is likely to be a tough fight this spring over limited county funds.

The $2.3 billion budget represents a 3 percent increase, or $62 million, over the current fiscal year and given the economic circumstances is relatively painless. But the Montgomery County Council has final say over spending levels, and it will make its determination in May.

Jerry D. Weast, the county's schools superintendent, said that the system could face steep penalties if spending dips below the approved budget, which represents the minimum Maryland requires counties to spend on their schools.

"The last thing we need to do is trip the state law," Weast said. "When you're digging a hole, the best thing you can do is stop digging."

Montgomery County, the state's largest school system, faces a $23.4 million fine because the Maryland State Board of Education determined that the county had not met minimum levels of education spending this fiscal year.

There are several bills pending in the Maryland legislature that would waive the state minimums this year. And the Montgomery schools have also vowed to fight the fine.

Weast spoke in December of the consequences of budget cuts, offering a list of 21 recommendations that would eliminate 534 positions if the school system lost a hypothetical $43 million in funding. The largest cut would increase average class sizes by one student at each grade, which would eliminate 240 classroom teachers and save $15.4 million. About $6 million would be saved by eliminating 30 positions from the central office. And transportation could be cut for students outside of normal attendance zones for programs, including magnet schools, eliminating 65 positions and saving $4.9 million.

The approved budget is $37 million higher than what Weast proposed in December, the result of a shift in state-funding formulas that gave extra money to the district. But that extra money is being held in reserve on the assumption that it won't be available in the end, officials said.

"This is really just barely what we need," said Patricia O'Neill, school board president (Bethesda-Chevy Chase), referring to the approved budget. She said that "people shouldn't breathe a sigh of relief . . . there may be cuts yet to come."

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