Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast says he needs $94 million more from the state and federal government next year to keep up with the rapid growth of the system and to pay for reforms to boost underperforming student achievement.
But this is a tough year to be asking for so much money -- $1.5 billion in all. The words "tax increases" are whispered around the edges of official conversations.
"My real concern is, what do we do if the county doesn't fund this request because it is minimal," said School Board President Patricia O'Neill. "County Council members understand this is our minimum, but they don't know how they're going to pay for it. This is giving them heartburn."
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) already has floated proposals to raise gas and property taxes and increase fees to pay for transportation improvements. County PTA leaders said they would talk early next month about what kinds of taxes, if any, they would support to pay for the education budget.
Unlike some budget proposals that ask for the moon and then are pared back to reality, some school officials say this is the bottom. Weast has cut $15 million, most by eliminating administrative positions, out of the current budget.
To spend $3 million to buy new textbooks to support the curriculum Weast has had rewritten, he is cutting funding out of the instructional materials budget.
Weast's "minimum" leaves many community activists unsatisfied, further straining tensions between the schools in what Weast has dubbed the "red zone" -- where high poverty has spurred massive investment in lower class sizes and all-day kindergarten -- and the more affluent "green zone."
"This is a budget that has the green zone saying, 'Why not us?' " a school official said, "and the red zone saying, 'Thank goodness.' "
O'Neill said this year's budget woes are reminiscent of the tough fiscal times of the early 1990s, when school board members lengthened walking distance to schools, cutting back on bus service, and increased the average allowable class size. That, she said, is not an option.
"We can't afford to sacrifice the improvements we've made in the red zone," O'Neill said, "and we also can't afford to raise class size everywhere else."
Still, some critics of the system, such as John Hoven, who heads the local Gifted and Talented Association, question Weast's devotion to his "expensive initiatives that seem out there for show."
Hoven not only questions whether the initiatives are working -- Weast has published studies and had them independently reviewed to verify that they are -- but also is unhappy that much of the money is being spent rewriting the curriculum. "Our issue isn't the budget," he said. "Things are looking terrible for gifted students because the math curriculum has been destroyed. Science is awful, too."
Since coming to Montgomery in 1999, Weast has made it his priority to close the achievement gap and has focused his policies and much of the budget on improving education in high-poverty schools. When money flowed freely, he assured parents in the green zone that their improvements would follow soon.
In the upcoming budget, Weast proposes to spend about $50 million to keep his reform initiatives alive. There are no new initiatives for either the red zone or the green zone.
"People are concerned," said Michelle Yu, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. "We were hoping to have full-time counselors in every school by now. But we're told it needs to wait."
Weast is constrained by the rapid growth in enrollment. In his budget, he said he needs $31 million more next year just to keep up with the growing number of students who will pour into county schools: 1,760 more, bringing the total to 140,554, the highest ever.
He needs $30 million more to honor the 4 percent salary increase he negotiated with teachers, and an additional $7.5 million to pay for two training days to help teachers become better at what they do.
Weast is adamant that much of the increased costs need to come from the county, $59 million to be exact. That's $10 million more than the county gave last year. But far lower than the $68 million of two years ago.
"Can we afford to continue critical academic reforms during a time of increased cost and economic downturn?" Weast asked the audience at Montgomery Blair High School, packed with teachers, principals and school and county officials. "I think we can."