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Montgomery executive pitches property tax increase to fund school needs

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich addresses a crowd at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda last year. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich is proposing a 10-cent property tax increase that would bolster the county’s budget by roughly $220 million to cover the needs of Maryland’s largest school district.

Under Elrich’s $6.8 billion spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1, the largest chunk of funding — $3.2 billion — would go to Montgomery County Public Schools.

“I don’t want anybody to have a takeaway that the budget increase I put in was something I did easily,” Elrich (D) said at a news conference Wednesday rolling out the plan. Because of inflation, the county’s spending on schools has not been keeping up with costs, he said.

The school system’s budget request is roughly a $296 million increase from the current year’s funding. A significant part of the system’s funding would be used to increase teacher salaries, along with other initiatives, including making Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs free for students, implementing a program that would allow parents to track their child’s school bus in real time, and adding seats to early-childhood education programs.

Without some type of additional revenue, the county would have to significantly cut services to fulfill the school system’s request, Elrich said.

Montgomery’s current property tax rate is roughly 99 cents per $100 of assessed value, meaning a person with a roughly $300,000 home pays nearly $3,000 in taxes, said Richard Madaleno, the county’s chief administrative officer. The proposed tax by Elrich would increase the bill by roughly $300.

Funding from the 10-cent tax increase would go exclusively toward schools. The tax would be permanent and require approval from the County Council.

In pitching his plan, Elrich also pointed to state assessment results showing county students are following the national trend with improvements in English language arts but lapses in math. About 31 percent of Montgomery County’s students from third through eighth grades received a proficient mathematics score on state testing administered in the spring. Twenty percent of students received a proficient score in Algebra I. The data also shows achievement gaps have widened, with students of color and economically disadvantaged students still trailing their White and more affluent peers in academic recovery.

With schools struggling to retain teachers and recover from the pandemic, the county is at an “inflection point,” Elrich said.

The school system will also receive roughly $930 million in state aid, which is up nearly $70 million. Originally, the school system estimated it would get a $15 million boost from the state, but the number increased substantially after a recent state government analysis found thousands of public school students who qualified for anti-poverty programs but were not previously counted. The money will help the school system meet the demands of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, an education reform program that includes funding requirements from counties, to ensure students statewide receive the same level of instruction.

Standing alongside Elrich, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Monifa B. McKnight said that “students need us today in a way that they never have before,” emphasizing the impact of the pandemic on students’ academic progress.

Pia Morrison, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 500, said Elrich’s proposal would not have been able to address the critical issues facing school employees, such as retaining teachers, without the 10-cent property tax increase. Morrison — whose union represents employees including paraeducators, bus operators, cafeteria workers and building services personnel — added that, in order for the county to close the achievement gap, “you have to be able to pay the people who do the work.”

Elrich’s budget proposal also includes a $20,000 hiring bonus for police officers, similar to an initiative pushed by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) in June. The budget also has some funding that would address the impact of the pandemic, such as a $5.8 million allocation that would go toward coronavirus testing, vaccination administration and other outbreak responses. Elrich’s coronavirus funding allocation comes after the Biden administration signaled it would end national emergencies to address the pandemic in May.

The County Council has scheduled public hearings on the budget on April 11 and April 13, before a June 1 deadline for final action. Council President Evan Glass (D-At Large) said in a statement following Elrich’s proposal: “As we undertake this important task, the Council will provide thorough oversight to ensure taxpayer investments are used prudently.”