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Montgomery County Council wants more counselors, other support staff in schools

Members of the Montgomery County Council , concerned about the student achievement gap, focused Monday on how to ensure that the number of non-teaching public school staff keeps pace with rising student enrollment during budget talks with the Board of Education.

Councilwoman Valerie Ervin a member of the council’s education committee, which was holding the work session with school leaders, said she was especially worried that Montgomery was falling behind on staffing guidance counselors, pupil personnel workers and school psychologists. The school system shed several of these positions during the economic recession.

“There is a concern to me as it relates directly to the achievement gap,” Ervin said.

Last month, the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight released a report showing the achievement gap — the educational performance gulf between white and Asian students and black and hispanic students — in Montgomery County has widened in certain measures.

The pressure to close that gap will only increase as the county’s population grows and the school system will need to serve more students from lower-income families or students who speak English as a second language. Both of these populations are more likely to fall behind their peers academically.

Montgomery expects an additional 2,500 students in the coming fiscal year, pushing enrollment past 151,000. The number of students who speak English as a second language will increase by about 780 students, while the number of those eligible for Free and Reduced Meals — a measure of poverty — is expected to rise by 2,000.

Board of Education President Christopher Barclay said the school system is looking to develop minimum staffing levels for positions such as guidance counselors to maintain enough support staff.

Councilman Craig Rice urged school officials to find ways to streamline administrative staff to boost levels of support staff in the schools.

“Our emphasis should be on the ground, on our troops, the people in the classroom with our kids,” Rice said. “Don’t just ask for more bodies, but also be more efficient.”

Barclay said the school system recently completed a reorganization of central office staff and will continue to work on efficiencies, but that, “given the significant growth that we’re seeing and the education load and the students coming in, it’s difficult for me to say we won’t need the additional dollars.”

Budget discussions between the County Council and the school system have been more tense in recent years under the financial stress from the recession. The school system’s budget takes up more than half of county spending.

The Board of Education asked the county to go $10 million over its minimum spending limit for schools in fiscal 2014 County Executive Isiah Leggett, denied the request and told school officials to find the $10 million in the roughly $40 million that the school district has in reserves.

Under the the state’s “maintenance of effort” law, the county must spend at least the same amount it did per pupil compared to the year before. Any increases above maintenance-of-effort automatically increases the following year’s spending commitment from the county.

“Using $10 million from the fund balance isn’t going to break our backs,” Montgomery Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said. But now the burden will be on the school system to find the $10 million each year going forward after raising the spending base in fiscal 2014.

“It will be a challenge,” Starr said. “We’ll continue to do what we do. We have a good track record of being efficient.”

The Montgomery County Council Education Committee and the Montgomery Board of Education will have another budget work session April 19 with more detailed discussion of the achievement gap.

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.



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