In his first major initiative, new Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast is proposing an ambitious $665 million capital budget to build new schools and modernize aging ones that will house far more students than initially expected.
Weast, a self-proclaimed "change agent," said he was sorry that the six-year budget includes only two new initiatives: $15 million in planning money to convert closed schools to early childhood learning centers and $57 million to upgrade computer equipment and wire all schools for the Internet by September 2002, two years earlier than first planned.
With 140,000 students projected to be enrolled in county schools by 2005, 5,000 more than once expected, and with a tight labor market inflating construction costs, Weast said much of the budget is designed just to keep the burgeoning school system running in place.
"Some of the very needed initiatives that indicators are crying out for are not at the funding levels we need because of these two pressures," Weast said, referring to higher-than-expected enrollment and inflation. "I can't tell you how sorry I am about that."
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) winced at the price tag. "Oh, man," he said.
The six-year budget, unveiled yesterday, signals a 17 percent increase over what school planners projected last year. And for the fiscal year that begins in July, the $143 million spending request is a jump of 30 percent over projections.
County Council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), chairman of the education committee, said the "ambitious" proposal is more than the county can afford.
"From that sense, it is very problematic," Subin said. "It has some initiatives in here which, conceptually, are outstanding but probably aren't ready to be funded."
School board president Reginald M. Felton (Northeastern County) defended Weast's early childhood proposals as "critical" if increasingly diverse Montgomery County is to remain one of the best school systems in the country.
"I think council members will be stunned for the moment," Felton said of the spending tab, "but we'll sit down and have a real dialogue about our needs."
The budget proposes expanding all-day kindergarten from nine to 28 schools with the neediest populations. The plan also would reduce kindergarten class size from the current 22 to 15 students by adding 36 portable classrooms, reflecting Weast's push to close the troubling academic achievement gap between whites and Asians and other minorities by focusing on early education.
The plan calls for adding 202 new classrooms at 32 schools, building three new schools, accelerating a backlog of modernizations and initiating planning to add 216 classrooms at 15 more schools--at a cost of up to $120 million in future capital budgets.
Without the improvements, Weast said, 27 county schools will be bursting at the seams, at 120 percent of capacity by 2005, and 11,000 students will be shoehorned into 480 portable classrooms, up from the 286 portables now in use.
Weast's budget anticipates $30 million in state aid to help ease construction costs, $10 million less than expected last year and $20 million less than Duncan said the county is eligible for.
"That's not acceptable," Duncan said. "We'll see what we can do to help make this budget happen, but state funding has to be a key part of it."
Weast also proposes to speed up middle school modernizations from once every 70 years to once every 60 years. The elementary school cycle would be accelerated from 50 to 42 years. High school modernizations would remain at once every 46 years.
"Seventy years is just way too long," said board vice president Patricia O'Neill.
The school board will hold work sessions on the budget Nov. 9 and public hearings on Nov. 10 and 11. The board is expected to vote on the budget on Nov. 18 and send it to the County Council for action.
More detailed school-by-school information on the proposal can be found on the Montgomery County Public Schools' Web site at: www.mcps.k12.md.us/departments/planning/requested.htm.