More than a third of the state aid that Montgomery County receives based on the number of low-income students in its schools has not been used on programs specifically aimed at their needs, according to a new report that examines staffing and resources at high-poverty schools.
Montgomery County Public Schools used $47 million out of its $128.6 million in this kind of state aid for broader operating-budget functions last school year, the report said. The school system is allowed to do so under state law, it said.
But with continuing concerns about achievement gaps by race, ethnicity and income, the high-performing school system could have provided more resources to high-poverty schools, especially middle schools and high schools, according to the analysis by the Office of Legislative Oversight, the research arm of the Montgomery County Council.
“The achievement gap by income persists and often widens by grade span,” the report said, adding that most of Montgomery’s efforts to help low-income students were at the elementary school level.
The report also notes the academic resources Montgomery has put into high-poverty schools, which have more staff and lower class sizes. Montgomery has had a class-size reduction initiative since 2001 for its elementary schools with the highest levels of poverty. On average, though, teachers are more experienced at more affluent schools.
The report comes at a time when discussion about the shape of the county’s fiscal 2017 budget is underway and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has all but guaranteed that he will send a proposal for a property tax increase to the County Council. School funding, which accounts for a large portion of the county budget, is an annual flashpoint, with debate often touching on what school leaders are doing to tackle the achievement gap.
“It does pose the question: Why should the council ask the taxpayers to chip in more resources for closing the achievement gap when MCPS hasn’t used all of the money is has precisely for that purpose?” County Council Vice President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said at a council meeting this week.
Floreen said that she does not question whether the district’s spending is legal. “I do question whether that’s morally right and fiscally responsible given the persistence of the achievement gap,” she said.
School officials in the 156,000-student district responded to the report in a seven-page letter, raising concerns about the methodology, analysis and suggestions and emphasizing the additional resources they steer to high-poverty schools.
“We do not believe the approach advocated for . . . is sustainable or realistic,” Larry A. Bowers, interim superintendent, said in the letter.
School officials said that on the elementary level, they invest as much as $3,000 to $4,000 more per student, which helps pay for extra staff positions, lower class sizes and more individualized student support. The district also has added 50 extra “focus” teachers for English and math in secondary grades at high-poverty schools, officials said.
“We believe we have and do differentiate a great deal,” Bowers said in an interview. “Would we like to do more? We would. But we have had some very difficult budget years.”
Since 2009, Bowers said, the district has cut 1,800 positions and taken a hit in per-pupil county funding, which has dipped by almost $1,500 a year.
He said that he knew of no other Maryland school system that takes the approach the county report suggests. If Montgomery gave more funding to high-poverty schools, he said, it would have to shift funding away from low-poverty schools at a time of budgetary strain. Low-poverty schools were expected to see more of an effect from the class-size increase this year.
Bowers said the report did not account for some district efforts — including minority achievement programs and community engagement initiatives — and misinterpreted expectations for state aid based on low-income student enrollment.
“There are a lot of things we do in the regular classroom to support all of these students,” Bowers said.
Across the school system, more than 54,000 students received free or reduced-price meals last school year, about 35 percent of total enrollment.
The analysis — which compared the half of schools with the highest rates of poverty to the half with the lowest rates — found the average class size was 18.9 in higher-poverty elementary schools and 22.9 in lower-poverty elementary schools. The report said that higher-poverty schools had more staff but higher annual turnover.
Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County) said Montgomery is grappling with issues that other districts face nationally and noted that the county study followed others about the achievement gap. She said that she hoped school and county leaders, as well as parents, would work together to address problems.
“It’s very important to unpack all of these issues so we can best understand how we can move forward,” Navarro said.