Category Archives: MCPS

Hell No!

By Adam Pagnucco.

A state commission charged with examining changes to Maryland’s public school funding formulas is sifting through recommendations for improvement.  And in the early deliberations, one big loser stands out:

Montgomery County.

The State of Maryland is a major player in public schools funding.  In FY17, the state will send $5.5 billion in operating aid to local school districts, about a third of its general fund budget.  MCPS gets 28% of its operating budget from the state.  Prince George’s County Public Schools gets 57% of its budget from the state.  In total, state aid accounts for 48% of Maryland public school budgets.

The state’s generous K-12 spending is driven by formulas dating back to 2002, when a state commission led by Howard University professor Alvin Thornton (commonly known as “the Thornton Commission”) proposed massive new investments in education.  These investments have helped rank Maryland’s public schools among the nation’s best.  Now another state commission chaired by former University of Maryland System Chancellor William E. Kirwan is reexamining the state’s funding formulas to see if they can be improved.  And here is where things are starting to go badly wrong for MoCo.

A consultant paid by the Maryland State Department of Education recently completed a two-year study on the state’s funding formulas.  In the interest of promoting “adequacy” in public school spending for students across the state, the consultant made several recommendations for changing the funding formulas which are now being examined by the Kirwan Commission.  One of them is that Montgomery County should get a 63% cut in state aid (a reduction of $354 million) while local taxpayers should pay 60% more (an increase of $842 million) towards MCPS.  Montgomery County Council Member Craig Rice, a member of the commission, said “that would be devastating” and termed the suggested local dollar increase for MCPS “impossible.”  Indeed, the County Council just levied a 9% increase in property taxes in part to increase funding for MCPS.  The consultant’s recommendations don’t just apply to MoCo: they would phase out all state aid for schools in Kent, Talbot and Worcester Counties while sending massive increases to St. Mary’s, Harford, Charles, Calvert and Prince George’s.

MoCo is already short-changed on state aid because of wealth formulas that disadvantage the county because of its high property values and high incomes but don’t recognize its high cost of living.  The result is that MoCo taxpayers get back just 24 cents for every dollar in taxes they pay to the state.  The state average for all residents is 42 cents.  Howard County, which has a higher average household income than MoCo, gets 30 cents.  Only Talbot and Worcester Counties get back proportionately less than MoCo.  If anything resembling the consultant’s report winds up being recommended by the Kirwan Commission and passed into state law, this imbalance will get a lot worse.

Your author has been told that the report is merely a “conversation starter” and thus is irrelevant.  But we are reminded of the last conversation the state had about public school funding.  For decades, the state covered the cost of teacher pensions as part of its commitment to K-12 education.  The program was particularly valuable to MoCo, which has higher teacher compensation costs than other jurisdictions because of its high cost of living.  A decade ago, state leaders began to have “conversations” about having the counties pay these costs despite the fact that Boards of Education, not county governments, set teacher compensation packages.  A spokesperson for the Speaker of the House said it was “a philosophical argument that we definitely need to have.”  In 2010, almost all MoCo state legislators promised to oppose a shift in their election campaigns.  But just two years later, Governor Martin O’Malley proposed a partial pension funding shift, backed by both the Speaker and the Senate President, and most MoCo lawmakers voted to support it.  The cost of the shift to the Montgomery County Government increased steadily from $27 million in FY 2013 to $59 million this year, with $6 million offset by the state.  This far exceeds the cost to any other local government and is more than a third of the amount collected by the county’s recent 9% property tax hike.  The county government now pays more for teacher pensions than it does for libraries, recreation, courts, IT, housing or environmental protection.  Its teacher pension payments easily swamp any money earned from the liquor monopoly, which will return $21 million to the general fund this year.

So goes these conversations.  Now that this new conversation has started, here is a suggested response from all of our state legislators and county leaders to this consultant’s report.

HELL NO.

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MoCo’s Giant Tax Hike, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

The County Council is calling its recently passed budget an “Education First” budget since it included an increase above the state-required minimum level for Montgomery County Public Schools.  Let’s evaluate that claim.

The council and the school system have had strained relations for a decade.  The problems began under former Superintendent Jerry Weast, who antagonized several Council Members with his hard-charging, overdriven style.  Nevertheless, Weast won several major budget increases for MCPS during his tenure.  Then came the Great Recession, which forced the county to make substantial spending cuts across all of its agencies.  One obstacle to cuts at MCPS was the state’s Maintenance of Effort (MOE) law, which sets a local jurisdiction’s per-pupil contribution to public schools as a base which cannot be lowered in future years unless a waiver is obtained from the state’s Board of Education.  In Fiscal Years 2010, 2011 and 2012, the county cuts its per-pupil contribution to MCPS, and in 2012, it did so without applying for a waiver.  As a result, the General Assembly changed the MOE law to force counties to apply for waivers or else have their income tax revenues sent directly to school systems.  At the same time, the General Assembly shifted a portion of teacher pension funding responsibilities, once solely the province of the state, down to the counties.  The combination of these two changes provoked outrage from county officials, some of whom vowed to never support a dime over MOE for MCPS in the future.

The chart below, which shows the recent history of Montgomery County’s local per-pupil contribution to the schools, illustrates the effects of these events.  After rising through FY09, the per-pupil contribution fell for three straight years and then was frozen for four straight years.  This year, the Executive proposed and the council approved an increased per-pupil contribution.  (Roughly $300 of the increase is accounted for by the county’s payment of teacher pensions.)  This is why the County Council is calling its budget an “Education First” budget.

County Per-Pupil Spending on MCPS Nominal

But three items of context apply here.

First, the above chart does not include the effects of inflation, which erode dollar contributions over time.  The chart below shows per-pupil contributions in real dollars using 2017 as a base.  (Inflation in 2016 and 2017 is assumed to be 2.1%, the average of 2007-2015.)  Adjusted for inflation, the county’s current per-pupil funding is nowhere close to what it was before the Great Recession struck.

County Per-Pupil Spending on MCPS Real

Second, while MCPS was living under austerity, other county departments were receiving sizeable funding increases.  The chart below compares funding increases across several county departments and agencies including MCPS between FY10 (the pre-recession peak year) and FY16.  In terms of county dollars only, MCPS’s budget was cut from $1.57 billion to $1.54 billion over this period, a 2% cut, while many other departments enjoyed double-digit increases.  Can one good year make up for seven years of austerity for the public schools?

Change in County Spending FY10-FY16

Third, while county officials criticize the General Assembly for tightening the MOE law and shifting teacher pensions, it is the state that has been pumping substantial funding increases into MCPS’s operating budget.  The chart below shows that while county funding for MCPS was cut by $33 million between FY10 and FY16, state aid to MCPS rose by $192 million.

MCPS Local Money vs State Aid

The bottom line is that the new FY17 budget does add $110 million in local money to MCPS, an amount which exceeds the state-required maintenance of effort by $89 million.  But this one funding increase comes after seven years of reduced and frozen per-pupil contributions, a period during which the rest of the government enjoyed double-digit increases.  Council President Nancy Floreen has described the budget as “a historic partnership with the Board of Education” and “a plan for the future.”  Does that mean that the council will continue to exceed maintenance of effort and give the school system increases that match the rest of the government in future years?  Or will this be a one-year respite, after which austerity will return?

We will have more in Part Three.

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PTA, MCPS Place Leventhal in Time-Out

MoCoCouncil

Montgomery County Council President George Leventhal has been pressing very hard for the Council to approve $31 million for needed upgrades to the County Council office building.

Reaction by MCCPTA Leaders

PTA members were not jumping for joy at the prospect in light of MCPS’s severe school construction needs. Cheryl Peirce, Chair of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations (MCCPTA) Capital Improvements Program (CIP) Committee, sent out one alert regarding the proposal:

In light of our recent testimony to the County Council on February 24th for funding for our school buildings and systems, as well as efforts we (MCCPTA, MCPS, County Council, state delegation) have undertaken this year and last in Annapolis, a decision to consider a $30M+ renovation of the County Council offices has raised questions among Board of Education members and many MCCPTA leaders.

Other online critics have been less diplomatic, suggesting that the Council can use portables.

Reaction from the School Board and the County Exec

As Bill Turque reported in the Washington Post, School Board Member Pat O’Neill had already expressed opposition to the proposal:

“We have 9,300 children in [classroom trailers],” O’Neill said. “We have children sitting in some classrooms with coats on” because of poor heating systems.

County Executive Ike Leggett opposed the plan and did not include the funds in the budget he submitted to the Council.

Leventhal on Critics

Leventhal punched back hard:

“In the school system’s view, 100 percent of the budget should be available for school construction,” he said. “Their plan is that any available dollar should go to school construction.”

Earlier comments–that seemingly include colleagues who failed to line up behind the plan–expressed equal regard for opponents:

Leventhal, with some sarcasm, said the council could elect to “remain in this outmoded, falling-apart decrepit building forever.”

On Tuesday night, Bill Turque reported that the renovation plan had been “set aside.”

My Take

Leventhal is absolutely right that the council building needs renovation. The heating and A/C are terrible–you really don’t want an office on the sunny side in summer. It may even be, as George said, “odiferous,” though I’ve never noticed it on my visits.

But it ultimately is a question of priorities. Thousands of students are learning in portables and school buildings also have similar problems with the heating and the A/C. Our new governor does not seem real keen on funding school construction, so the County cannot depend on money raining down from the State.

George Leventhal is not a happy person today. Fortunately, both MCCPTA and MCPS have lots of experience in handling ill-tempered people of all ages. The effectiveness of both organizations during this episode signals that neither should be ignored over the next four years.

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No Longer Waiting for a Starr to Fall

MCPS Superintendent Josh Starr and the School Board put the school system out of its misery with his planned exit. Starr leaves in two weeks and all involved have agreed never to speak of it again. It’s all so Downton Abbey.

At this point, figuring out exactly why Starr needed to go remains a mystery. Lou Peck helpfully put together that Judy Docca, Michael Durso, Jill Ortman-Fouse, and Rebecca Smondrowski demanded that he go. Puzzled Montgomery residents may still wonder why. Here is the Washingotn Post‘s explanation:

Montgomery County is a consistently high-achieving district with improving graduation rates and strong SAT scores. County officials familiar with school board deliberations told The Washington Post that Starr’s exit was not the result of a single issue; instead, a series of perceived missteps added to a simmering concern about Starr’s ability to build on the success of Jerry D. Weast, who retired in 2011 after a 12-year run.

County officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were describing private conversations, said the board members who lost faith in Starr cited concerns with his approach to closing the school system’s achievement gap and his candidacy for the chancellorship of New York’s public schools after a little more than two years in Rockville. They said his personal style was at times remote and dismissive, and they mentioned the lack of coherent vision for principals at the district’s 202 schools.

After reading this, I’m still wondering, Improving graduation rates and strong SAT scores sound not too shabby. The negative phrases of “perceived missteps” and “simmering concern” read like verbiage that could appear in almost any bureaucratic porridge. Doesn’t exactly reek of the polarization associated with Michelle Rhee or utter failure of many of her predecessors.

The concerns about his candidacy to be New York Chancellor make me shrug. It might be seen as a sign that we were on the right track the school system of America’s largest city considered him a good candidate. Would we prefer a superintendent that no one else wants to hire?

There is also a certain double standard in demanding total loyalty that we are clearly unwilling to reciprocate. Someone who wants to move up also has a real incentive to make the system he currently runs function well.

I’m still trying to figure out what the “coherent vision for principals” concern means. It could suggest a lack of clear marching orders. On the other hand, it might indicate a welcome lack of interest in wrapping up the job in the latest educational fashion. As someone who works in academia and has seen trends come and go, that wouldn’t bother me. Is it just bad relations with the School Board?

We’ll never know, though many theories will circulate widely. Less of a problem for the public’s right to know–I’ll manage in this case–than that it may leave potential good candidates wondering why he went and if they want to follow.

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