Montgomery schools set to act against council

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Montgomery County school board unanimously approved legal action against the county Tuesday if its budget is cut further, ramping up a confrontation between two branches of the county government.

School officials had not protested in the weeks since County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) proposed giving schools $137 million less than the board had requested. But after County Council members began saying two weeks ago that they wanted additional cuts in the school budget, school officials unveiled the unusual maneuver.

"It's not what we want to do," said Board of Education President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). "It's much more fun to sit around a campfire and sing 'Kumbaya' than be in an adversarial position."

The council has long set spending for public schools and other public agencies. But Superintendent Jerry D. Weast and the school system's lawyers have argued that state law prohibits the council from cutting deeper than the county executive's proposal, if the county already is dipping below the state minimum for school spending, which it is.

The county's lawyers said that the law has ambiguities, but they wrote an opinion for the council last week saying it would probably prevail against a legal challenge by the schools.

Only once in the past decade has the council cut school spending below the level proposed by the county executive, said county spokesman Patrick Lacefield. That was in 2005, but the funding was well above the state minimum.

At issue is $33 million that council members think could be saved if school employees were to take a weeklong furlough. Many county employees are facing furloughs, but Weast has argued that furloughing teachers would have dire educational consequences and has held out against that move.

Weast also said the additional cut would reduce the chances of the State Board of Education waiving the minimum school spending requirement. The school system requested the minimum level of county funding; Leggett's budget included $137 million less. Without the state board's waiver, the schools would lose an additional $51 million, although the state legislature could intervene, as it did this year, to allow spending to dip below the minimum.

The county cannot dictate how the schools spend the money they are given. By law, that is the role of the school board.

The school board has said it would slash other programs instead of issuing furloughs. Class sizes are set to rise by an average of one student next year, and employee salaries have been frozen.

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