Weast wants $60 million more for schools, few cuts

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010

Montgomery County class sizes would be maintained and school employees would get raises under a budget proposed Wednesday by School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, opening what is likely to be a contentious budgeting season with an increase request that is the minimum required by a state law.

But the proposal for a budget of $2.16 billion for fiscal 2012 - an increase of $60 million over the current amount - is unlikely to survive come spring, when it is to be finalized. This year, the county obtained a waiver to fund schools below state minimums, and County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) called for a change to the law Monday.

The county faces a shortfall of more than $300 million, and the council made more than $30 million in midyear spending cuts Tuesday.

Weast's budget proposal, because it conforms to the state law that requires the county to fund schools at the same per-student level as it did in fiscal 2010, includes relatively few cuts at a time when school systems across the country face growing class sizes, fewer teachers and a decline in the federal stimulus money that has softened budget blows for the past two years.

"I'm down to bare bones here," Weast said. "I'm about to cry on the inside on this thing."

Still, some school officials said the proposal, as it stands, is unlikely to survive unchanged.

"It's an optimistic budget," said Montgomery Board of Education member Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). "The council has sounded the charge loud and clear that they're not going to make Maintenance of Effort," the term for the minimum funding law.

There will be "a lot of sleepless nights" ahead, she added.

Montgomery expects enrollment to grow by more than 3,300 students next year, up to more than 147,000, so even a flat budget would require some cuts. Enrollment growth in ordinary times means having to hire more teachers and support staff to maintain class sizes and services.

Because of the decline in federal stimulus funding - expected to be $54 million less than what was received this year - the school system also wants to rely more heavily on local dollars. Although the overall budget increase would be $60 million, the county would need to spend $82 million more than it now does. State funding would also increase.

But the fate of state and county funding remains unclear. When the state legislature convenes in the new year, it may discuss a proposal to pass some costs of teacher pensions back to counties. Basic state funding levels for education are also uncertain.

More than $32 million is dedicated to seniority-based step and longevity increases for school employees, which Weast said would require negotiations to modify. He did not propose cost-of-living salary increases, and he declined to say whether he was seeking an agreement with the school system's unions about another salary freeze.

But, he said, "I have no reason to believe that our smart employees won't help us to figure this out when we get to the end [of the budget cycle] and know how much money we have."

Class sizes increased by an average of one student this year after the school system's budget was cut year-on-year for the first time in memory - a contentious process in which Weast threatened at one point to sue the county. The textbook budget was cut by a third, bus service for after-school elementary school activities was eliminated and the central office's budget was trimmed by $6.5 million. The cuts have also caused grief among parents in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area, where services were cut to sixth-grade classes that are attached to elementary schools.

Weast's 2012 budget, his last before he retires in June, would trim central office spending by an additional $3.8 million. He said that less than 2 percent of the budget would be devoted to central administrative costs, which he said was the lowest in the school system's history.

The proposed salary increases, if they survive, are likely to be major targets, Montgomery politicians said.

Ervin called it an "inequity" that other county employees are not likely to receive raises.

Weast said in a speech to educators and community members Wednesday night that he would fight for his proposal. "You can't cut your way out of an economic crisis," he said. " "You must grow your way out."

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