Category Archives: MCPS

MCPS to Go Virtual Only Through January

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has announced that it will offer virtual learning only through January 29, 2021. Their community update is reprinted below.

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MCPS To Provide Virtual-Only Learning for First Semester

Plan to be reassessed in November 2020 for Second Semester

Dear Parents, Guardians, Students and Staff:

I am writing to provide an important update on our Fall 2020 recovery plans. MCPS has been working closely with county and state health officials on the potential reopening of schools. Yesterday (July 20), we received additional guidance from Dr. Travis Gayles, county health officer, in which he shared that “based upon the current state of surveillance and epidemiological data, I would not recommend in-person instruction for students inside school buildings at this time. I recommend investing in a virtual instruction model until, at earliest, the completion of the first quarter in November, with consideration for virtual instruction through the first semester.” As I have shared previously, our plan has always envisioned starting in a virtual-only model. However, given this updated guidance, the safest choice for our district is to remain in a virtual-only instructional model through the first semester—January 29, 2021; or until state and local health officials determine conditions in our county allow for students to return safely after the first semester. This decision includes the cancellation of all fall and winter sports. Working with Dr. Gayles and county elected officials, we will reassess at the end of the first quarter (November 9, 2020) to determine if we are able to implement a phased blended model in the second semester (beginning February 1, 2021). We will continue to engage with our community as we continue to navigate this incredibly complex situation.

We anticipate that Governor Larry Hogan and Dr. Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools, will also provide an update on the state’s recovery plan for schools this week. We will review their guidance and make all necessary adjustments to align our plans.

We continue to explore creative ways to support students receiving special services and families with significant challenges in accessing curriculum through a virtual model. We also know that this decision to extend virtual instruction will significantly impact the work schedules of many parents in our county. We are seeking the ability to allow buildings to remain open in a limited capacity for essential purposes, including meal service; to support access to technology and other materials; and for use by some child care providers.

On August 6, 2020, we will provide an updated plan to the Board of Education. This update will reflect adjustments stemming from changes in guidance from local health officials and the important feedback we’ve received from students, staff and the community. The Board of Education will vote on this plan at that time.

We are building on what we learned during the spring to provide a robust and dynamic virtual learning experience for our students. Our staff is being provided additional professional development to enhance their instructional abilities in a virtual model; we have put systems in place to ensure all students have access to digital devices and access to the internet when they are away from school buildings; and we are building in additional time for student support and learning opportunities. We are also streamlining digital tools and platforms to make it easier for our students, staff and families to engage in teaching and learning.

Our students are the heart of what we do and why we exist. There is no doubt in my mind that we all want what’s best for students. This decision is incredibly difficult as we know how much students need school for their academic success and social-emotional well-being. We take the immense responsibility of ensuring staff and student safety, educating our students and creating opportunities for all seriously. Thank you for your continued support and collaboration as we work together to meet the needs of our students, staff and families.

Sincerely,
Jack R. Smith, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Schools

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MCEA President Responds to MCPS Video

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) President Chris Lloyd has released the video below as a message to MCEA members in reaction to the MCPS video on the school system’s reopening plan. MCEA had previously said that the reopening plan was “wholly inadequate” to protect the health of students and employees.

Lloyd covers a lot of ground in this video, relating concerns of worried teachers and their family members, asking which metrics will be used to judge school safety and asking what will happen if (when) students and employees contract the virus at school and pass away. He says that school preparation can be funded with a share of the federal CARES Act money received by the county but notes that the school system has not requested it. He implores teachers not to leave their jobs. And he describes this feedback from MCEA members on MCPS’s video.

Some of you told me you felt the video on Friday from our employer was condescending. That it was gaslighting. That it made you feel small. And angry. That it was another example of our employer using tactics to try and divide us from our community. That it was an attempt to union bust. The union isn’t me and it isn’t you. It is all of us as a part of the largest labor union in the country with 3 million members.

On top of all of this, MCPS and MCEA have not finalized a new collective bargaining agreement as of this writing.

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Reopening Decisions by School District So Far

By Adam Pagnucco.

Editor’s note: this post has been updated to include Washington County, Maryland.

In the aftermath of discussion about MCPS’s reopening plans, let’s take a look at what other districts are planning. Bear in mind that jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia are bound by state guidance and they have had different coronavirus infection rates. Below is a summary of the approaches taken by 18 school districts in the Washington-Baltimore region.

Opening with online only as first phase (7 districts)

Arlington County: Schools will begin on September 8 with full-time distance learning. Parents may choose a hybrid model combining distance learning and physical school, which will begin implementation in October.

Charles County: Schools will start with all virtual learning “with a goal of transitioning to Phase 2 as quickly as possible. Phase 2 would include in-person instruction for special populations of students.”

Harford County: Distance learning only for the first semester. A limited number of spaces in physical schools will be offered to students to help them access online instruction.

Howard County: Distance learning only through January 28.

Prince George’s County: Distance learning only for the first two quarters of the school year.

Prince William County: The school year will begin with distance learning only for the first quarter (September 8 through October 30). Afterwards, “the goal will be to transition to a 50% capacity model in the second quarter, with the option for students to remain virtual.”

Washington County: “Washington County Public Schools (WCPS) students will begin the 2020-2021 school year with all students in grades pre-k through 12 engaged in distance learning. The Board of Education unanimously agreed to adopt a model of full distance learning beginning August 31, 2020 and continuing until it is safe for students to physically return to school.”

Preliminary plan with online only as first phase (3 districts)

Calvert County: “On July 16th, the Board of Education of Calvert County Public Schools decided to continue the discussion of how to open the 2020-2021 school year. To ensure the safety of staff and students during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board is in favor of starting the year online for all students. Board members recognize, however, that barriers exist for some students to learn online. The Board will continue to accept public comments about meeting the needs of students with limited or no internet connectivity or other challenges through July 22nd.”

Carroll County: Reopening will occur in three sequential phases: enhanced virtual/distance learning for all students, hybrid model combining distance learning and some in-person instruction and a traditional model. Parents may opt for online only for the entire fall semester.

Montgomery County: Schools will begin with distance learning and eventually phase in some in-person instruction. The teachers union and MCPS management have shared their perspectives on the plan.

Opening with choice model (1 district)

Fairfax County: Parents have been given a choice between full-time distance learning and a hybrid option with at least two days in physical schools.

Preliminary plan with hybrid or choice model (2 districts)

District of Columbia: According to a preliminary plan, parents may choose between all online learning or a hybrid of in-person and online. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said a final plan will be announced on July 31.

Frederick County: A draft plan suggests that most schools will open with a hybrid model in which students will be divided into two cohorts and alternate between two days in physical school and three days in virtual learning.

No plan yet (5 districts)

Alexandria City: The district is still in its planning process and does not yet have a draft plan.

Anne Arundel County: The district is still in its planning process and does not yet have a draft plan.

Baltimore City: The district is preparing a preliminary plan for consideration by the school board on July 28.

Baltimore County: No decision has been made.

Loudoun County: No plan has yet been released.

So far, no public school district in the region has said it will reopen with 100% traditional in-person instruction.

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MCPS Releases “Just the Facts” Video

By Adam Pagnucco.

MCPS has released the video below elaborating on its school reopening plan. The video was no doubt prompted by the Montgomery County Education Association’s statement that MCPS’s reopening was “wholly inadequate” in protecting students and staff.

Among the points made by MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith and some of his top staff are:

School will start on August 31 and be “all virtual.” Smith said, “When we phase it will depend on our health circumstances in our community and in our state.” Right now, the timing of when phases of in-school learning will begin is unknown.

Smith commented on the needs of students for physical school. He said, “We know that we have literally thousands and thousands of students who need to be in school if at all possible. We have students who are in poverty. We have students who have learning disabilities. We have students who are requiring English. We have students who really benefit from the structure, from their physical, social and psychological well-being. We have students who want the most rigorous experiences. In fact, every single student needs school. So we want to be ready to phase in when we’re able to come back in based on the health situation of our community. And when we are ready, we want to be able to start.”

The issue of discipline related to mask wearing came up. Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight gave this example: “We definitely are not going to discipline a six year old child who needs to take a break or struggles with adjusting to this new way of keeping themselves safe. But what we are going to do is teach them about it, teach them about the importance of it and how it contributes to their environment in a responsible way and help them and make note of things they struggle with wearing it so we can figure out ways to support them.” Nothing in the discussion contradicted MCEA’s statement that violating mask requirements would not result in discipline.

Communications Director Derek Turner said, “The next rumor I’ve heard is that only teachers and students are going to be cleaning classrooms.” (Note: MCEA said that “teachers and students will be primarily responsible for wiping down surfaces between classes” but did not say that they would be the only ones cleaning classrooms.) Associate Superintendent Essie McGuire said that building services workers would have more cleaning responsibilities than before but that teachers and students would have a role too. She said, “When we think about teachers and students, we’re really thinking about those personal spaces, the kind of in-the-moment, day-to-day cleaning that may just go with incidental use of your room or your personal space.”

McGuire said that MCPS has spent millions on personal protective equipment (PPE) and will continue to. When asked by Turner about whether just two masks would be provided for the entire year to teachers and students (as MCEA asserted), McGuire discussed how inventories of masks and other PPE would be available at schools but did not otherwise directly address the two-mask question.

McGuire said that different kinds of hand sanitizer dispensers would be available in different places inside schools. However, she did not directly contradict MCEA’s statement that “free-standing, hands-free sanitizer stations will not be available at school entrances because of their difficulty to obtain.”

McGuire said that there will not be a hard standard of 15 kids in a classroom. Classrooms will be evaluated based on their size and social distancing requirements to determine their appropriate student capacity. The actual number of students per classroom will vary.

On the degree of choice given to MCPS employees about whether they would be required to return to physical schools, Smith quoted a statement made by MCEA President Chris Lloyd in Bethesda Beat. Smith said:

I think this quote by Mr. Lloyd, the MCEA president, at the end of June, beginning of July in the Bethesda Beat really kind of sums up where we are. This is the quote. Lloyd said, “Many older teachers and those who are immune-compromised have told him they might not be comfortable returning to school buildings in the fall. But Lloyd said Superintendent Jack Smith has been clear with union leaders that teachers and students will have the flexibility to decide if they need to work remotely.” And so really that’s that issue of need and flexibility and choice, how all that works together. So we have to have a process for that. So we’re going to continue to work with individual employees and with individual families about what works for different families based on their needs and we have to be ready when we can phase in again to know who can and will work in schools, who will need to be in the virtual program and how that will continue to work together. So we’re going to continue this conversation in the next week, in the next month, in the next couple of months as we move forward and make plans for how to re-phase, reenter schools in a phased approach when we’re able to do so.

Smith ended the video with this statement.

This is a very, very tough situation. No one would have chosen this. Not one person would choose this. And we are all touched and affected by it. Every one of us, every person listening to me today has been touched in many ways by this. We must continue to work together on behalf of everyone to do the best job we can to make things work for our community, for our students, for our staff and the entire public education structure. It’s critically important for our future that we are able to continue forward with public education in the way that it serves our communities.

Amen to that, Dr. Smith.

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MCEA: MCPS Reopening Plan “Wholly Inadequate” to Protect Students and Staff

By Adam Pagnuccco.

Last night, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) held a town hall with its members to share its recent discussions with MCPS on a range of issues, including MCPS’s plan to reopen schools. MCEA just put out the press release below summarizing its views on the reopening plan.

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MONTGOMERY COUNTY EDUCATORS CORRECT MISINFORMATION REGARDING PROPOSED SCHOOL REOPENINGS WITH SERIOUS CONCERNS OVER STUDENT AND COMMUNITY SAFETY

Summary of MCEA Position on Reopening

ROCKVILLE — The Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) plan to reopen schools is wholly inadequate to protect the health and safety of students and staff. Many questions about how to safely implement the plan remain unanswered and there are discrepancies between what MCPS leaders told the public during a July 15 virtual town hall, and what they are telling the teachers from the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) who are trying to work with MCPS to come up with a way to ensure student and staff safety.

Masking, social distancing, and enhanced cleaning are the three pillars on which the MCPS plan rests, and it fails in all three areas.

For example, MCPS is proposing supplying students and staff with two cloth masks for the entire school year. Disposable masks will be available if students or staff forget their mask or soil it, but only as long as supplies are available. The cloth masks must be cleaned after each use, but there is no way for teachers to determine whether a mask has been washed.

Mask wearing will be mandatory, but educators have no recourse beyond moral persuasion to enforce this requirement. MCPS says mask-wearing is a “wellness” issue and that teachers should stress to students that wearing a mask keeps everyone safer. If a child cannot be persuaded, MCPS suggests the teacher ask the school nurse or counselor for help, if one is available. MCPS has made clear this is not a “discipline” issue and that teachers should not send students to building administrators.

Students will eat lunch in their classrooms–unmasked. It is unclear who will monitor students during lunch, and teachers/students will be responsible for “sanitizing” the space after eating.

For social distancing, MCPS is requiring six feet between student desks in classrooms. MCPS has posted videos showing adults pretending to be students sitting in classrooms and lining up when they arrive at school, but MCEA representatives who have visited elementary schools to look at classroom set ups have yet to find one large enough to safely accommodate students, even if class sizes are halved, as MCPS proposes. Limited bus seating means schools will have to stagger arrival and departure times, further complicating social distancing. It is unclear how schools will safely conduct mandatory drills, including fire drills and those required for active shooter threats and inclement weather.

Enhanced cleaning and frequent hand washing also fall far short. Contrary to what MCPS has told the public, free-standing, hands-free sanitizer stations will not be available at school entrances because of their difficulty to obtain. Because no additional funds have been designated to beef up custodial staffing, teachers and students will be primarily responsible for wiping down surfaces between classes. This assumes adequate cleaning supplies will be available. Building services staff will clean “high contacts” areas, but given limited time, it is likely places like bathrooms will be cleaned just twice a day. A weekly “deep clean” on Wednesday does little to protect students and staff throughout the school day on Monday and Tuesday, or Thursday and Friday.

A plan replete with shortcomings cannot ensure the health and safety of students or staff. If MCPS leaders persist with this terribly flawed reopening, they will do so, leaving educators with an untenable choice: our jobs or our health and the health of the people we love.

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Distance Learning May be Plan C, but it is the Best Option Right Now

By Sunil Dasgupta, candidate for Montgomery County Board of Education, At-large.

Students, families, and school staff are waiting anxiously as MCPS debates what school will look like in the fall. Who will return to school buildings, and when? How will transportation work? Will students and staff be able to choose virtual learning and instruction? There are infinite questions and no great options.

Plan A for the fall was to bring all students back into classrooms. Under normal circumstances, this would of course be the optimal plan, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) argued for the physical presence of students in schools as necessary for child development. But CDC’s 6-feet social distancing guidance requires each student and teacher have 36 sq ft of exclusive space while in school. Even using Parks and Recreation facilities, tented outdoors classrooms, or small self-contained pods, MCPS cannot make full time in-person instruction possible for all students.

Plan B is the hybrid model—part in-person and part online with shift attendance—which is reflected in the draft plan that MCPS released this week. This plan attempts to bring students and staff back into buildings while meeting CDC guidelines, but it raises questions about safety, risk, and reward. One high school English teacher pointed out that, under the draft plan, he would meet with his students in-person only six times in the fall. The potential benefit of the hybrid model does not seem worth the risk, and with a substantial number of students and staff opting for online instruction, a great deal of the burden of carrying forward instruction would remain online.

That leaves us with Plan C: online, virtual, distance learning only, at least for the fall semester. The last few months have shown that it is very difficult to provide high-quality distance learning. Even in a large, wealthy jurisdiction like Montgomery County, we see noticeable gaps in access, engagement, and continuity of learning. While online learning has been more manageable and accessible for some, many families are reporting confusion over scheduling, technology problems, lack of student engagement, and absence of learning. When combined with serious equity and access issues, the results have been far from satisfactory.

None of the plans are perfect. But only one plan is safe: Plan C. MCPS should stick with distance learning for the fall semester, and the school system should make the announcement as soon as possible so we can create the best Plan C possible.

We can provide additional training for teachers, set higher expectations for students, and create more engaging curricula. We can make concrete plans for technology troubleshooting and meeting the needs of students with special learning needs and English Language Learners. And we can give families time to plan for how to manage life once classes resume.

But we can only begin preparing for more equitable, better organized, and ultimately more powerful online learning experiences for our young people once the school system makes the call to go with the imperfect, yet safe Plan C. Waiting longer risks losing the vital prep and training time needed to get this right.

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Elrich Asks MCPS for Cuts

By Adam Pagnucco.

In a memo to Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Superintendent Jack Smith, County Executive Marc Elrich is asking MCPS to make operating budget cuts along with the rest of county government. Elrich also makes clear that the capital budget will have to be reduced. Elrich is not asking for a specific cut number yet but indicates that the county will have a clearer picture of its tax base by late August.

What is unclear is how any spending cuts to MCPS conform with state law. The county council recently funded MCPS at maintenance of effort, which is the minimum amount of local dollars allowed by the state. If the county wants to reduce MCPS below maintenance of effort, relevant state law will need to be addressed.

Elrich’s memo to Smith appears below.

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MCPS Survey Responses on Distance Learning

By Adam Pagnucco.

On May 27, the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) released a summary of responses from local school districts to its survey on distance learning. However, MSDE did not initially list the responses by school district. After Delegate Eric Luedtke (D-14) submitted a Maryland Public Information Act request to get the responses by district, MSDE published that data. Delegate Luedtke shared the responses with Seventh State. Below are the questions by MSDE and the responses submitted by Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in early May.

Question: Are distance learning packets a part of your school system’s Continuity of Learning Plan?

Answer: Yes.

Q: In the past week, what percentage of eligible students received at least one distance learning packet?

A: I have data about distance learning packets but cannot answer this question exactly as it is written.

Q: If you answered the previous question “I cannot answer this question exactly as it is written” or need to provide additional information about students receiving distance learning packets, please explain.

A: To date, MCPS has produced 405,583 instructional packets from the digital files provided by the Curriculum Office. These multi-page, two-sided, stapled booklets are grade-specific and course-specific.

Distributed to schools:
March 13: 109,023

Distributed to meal distribution sites:
Total of 296,550
April 8: 47,250
April 17: 77,950
April 22: 77,950
April 29: 46,705
May 6: 46,705

Q: Is your school system collecting data on student engagement with distance learning packets?

A: Yes.

Q: How does your school system define student engagement with distance learning packets? (What “counts” as engagement?)

A: The weekly packets are designed for students to use in collaboration with the digital learning platform or for students to use in replacement of the digital learning platform. Students using the packets are expected to complete the assignments and tasks in the packets. Students who use the weekly paper packet should take a picture of one assignment page that best represents their work for the week and submit it to the teacher via email. Teachers keep the submitted packet assignments and use it to inform engagement levels as well as to inform the learning that is taking place.

Q: In the past week, what percentage of your students who received a distance learning packet have engaged with a distance learning packet? (For example, if 600 students received a distance learning packet, what percent of those 600 students engaged with a distance learning packet?)

A: I have data about engagement with distance learning packets but cannot answer this question exactly as it is written.

Q: If you answered the previous question “I cannot answer this question exactly as it is written” or need to provide additional information about students engaging with distance learning packets, please explain.

A: MCPS has just over 100 students engaging in only paper-packet activities. These students are working with their individual teachers on completion of work. MCPS is collecting engagement data from teachers in order to account for all students during distance learning. Teachers not only provide feedback through the use of the gradebook, but they also provide anecdotal data on individual students who are/are not engaging in remote learning.

Q: To your knowledge, what percentage of your students have access to the Internet, either at home or at a location suitable for accessing online learning activities? (Please answer this question to the best of your knowledge, even if your school system is not using online distance learning as part of its Continuity of Learning Plan.)

A: 93.75%.

Q: Is online distance learning part of your school system’s Continuity of Learning Plan?

A: Yes.

Q: Is your school system collecting data on students who sign on to online distance learning?

A: Yes.

Q: How has your school system defined “signed on” to online distance learning? (What “counts” as being signed on?)

A: MCPS is using three core digital systems as part of the online learning experience: Canvas, Google Apps, and Zoom. We are able to track logins across each of these systems over time.

Q: In the past week, what percentage of eligible students signed on to online distance learning?

A: 95% signed on at least once between April 25 and May 1.

Q: Is your school system collecting data on student engagement with online distance learning?

A: Yes.

Q: How has your school system defined/measured student engagement with online distance learning?

A: Engagement includes digital footprint data (logging in), completion of assignments, engaging in live sessions, and having interaction with the teacher. MCPS uses the digital footprint data to create an initial profile of the student’s online activity. We set a guideline of three logins per week per student, but recognize that some students may complete work in fewer, longer sessions, and the majority of students will engage in far more than three sessions per week. This data serves as a baseline indicator. From there, teachers provide anecdotal data and layer in additional engagement data that we cannot capture with the digital footprint data – paper packets, emails, phone calls, parent outreach, and effort. Together, this data is used to determine engagement for students.

Q: In the past week, what percentage of your students engaged with online distance learning?

A: I have data about engagement with online distance learning but cannot answer this question exactly as it is written.

Q: If you answered the previous question “I cannot answer this question exactly as it is written” or need to provide additional information about students engaging with online distance learning, please explain.

A: During the week of April 25th, more than 90% of students logged in to our digital systems more than 3 times. Teachers are in the process of updating comments about students’ engagement to provide the complete picture of activity for the first three weeks of marking period 4.

Q: Since your school system implemented its Continuity of Learning Plan, what percentage of students and/or families in your school system have not once been contacted, and/or contact has been attempted but failed? Contact may occur with either the student or family, and with a teacher, school staff member, school system administrator, or other educator.

A: <1%.

Q: Since your school system implemented its Continuity of Learning Plan, what percentage of students in your school system have not participated in distance learning in any form, meaning they have not received a distance learning packet, have not logged on to online distance learning, etc.? These students may have been contacted for other reasons.

A: Between 3% and 10% depending on criteria used.

Q: This survey asked about student participation in distance learning for your school system as a whole. Do you have this information by grade span (elementary, middle, and high)?

A: Yes.

Q: Please provide any additional information or comments about student contact and/or participation in distance learning.

A: About 3% of students have not engaged in distance learning of any kind or have not responded to emails, phone calls, or other outreach efforts. Some of these students were waiting on technology (which we are still centrally distributing or delivering to homes as requests come in). A small subset have indicated that due to illness, enrolling in community college courses, applying for early graduation, or opting out of distance learning, they will not be engaged in marking period four learning activities. As part of the engagement framework for marking period four, MCPS has set the minimum expected level of weekly log-ins to core digital platforms to greater than or equal to 3. While the majority of students are well above this minimum criteria, about 10% of students are not meeting this threshold. School academic and well-being support teams are charged with following up with these students in order to help improve quality and quantity of engagement in distance learning. MCPS has developed a comprehensive outreach plan that includes coordinated communication between counselors, school administrators, parent community coordinators, PPWs, and local law enforcement to connect with 670 students who have not yet engaged in any form of distance learning or replied to phone calls, emails, or other outreach efforts.

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MCPS Provides Details on Central Office Spending

By Adam Pagnucco.

In a recent post, I mentioned that MCPS’s central office spending had increased by 31% in three years, which was roughly triple the rate of spending growth in the school system’s entire budget. Derek Turner, Chief Communications Officer for MCPS, provided this explanation to us on changes in that spending category.

The increase in the MCPS Category I budget reflects a significant investment (nearly $9 million between 2017- 2020) to replace legacy business systems that are inefficient and ineffective for a school system of 167, 000 students and 24,000 employees. For context, MCPS has a set of legacy business systems that include paper-based timekeeping for employees; siloed financial systems that do not speak with one another; and a human resources system that relies heavily on the manual input of information. Given how outdated the systems are, when these systems come online, we will believe it will lead to long-term savings for the school system. Details about this increase can be found in the budget documents archived here: https://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/budget/archive.aspx.

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MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part Three

By Adam Pagnucco.

MCPS’s contested boundary analysis has dominated MoCo’s nasty school board race. It’s an issue definitely worthy of discussion, but it’s not the only one. Here are a few other issues that the school board candidates should address.

How can the Weast coalition be rebuilt?

Former MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast, who ruled the schools from 1999 through 2011, was many things: a bureaucratic empire builder, a ruthless field general, a hardened wielder of data and much more. He was also one of the greatest coalition builders in the history of MoCo. Weast knew that his initiatives cost money and he knew he needed allies to get it. His talents for horse-trading, cooptation, message-building and political head-knocking served him well. He reached an understanding with MCPS’s stakeholders that they could participate in crafting his budgets, but in return, they had to stick together against the common enemy: elected officials with funding authority. When budget time came, those who thought about going against Weast’s budget not only had to deal with Weast himself and his ministry of propaganda; they also had to fight the county employee unions, the PTAs and even the Washington Post’s editorial page (which was firmly pro-Weast). Weast’s power was so feared that most of the time, he didn’t even have to fight – he simply cut deals with chastened politicians who moved on to easier prey.

The Great Recession killed the Weast coalition and it has not been rebuilt. The relationship between current MCPS management and the unions is particularly problematic. In the Weast era, the unions completed contract negotiations in the fall, but as of this writing, none of them have yet finalized new collective bargaining agreements with MCPS.

These guys want to know who will get the band back together.

The recent history of the county’s local per pupil funding demonstrates the consequences of the declining power of school advocates. The chart below shows local per pupil contributions to MCPS – in other words, the amount of local dollars the county appropriated per student, which excludes other sources of money (like state and federal aid). The green line shows nominal dollars while the red line shows real 2020 dollars (which have been adjusted for inflation).

In nominal dollars, the county’s local per pupil contribution peaked at $11,249 in FY09. It was then cut for three straight years and frozen for four straight years until it began increasing in FY17. The county’s per pupil contribution in FY20 ($10,923) is 2.9% below its FY09 peak.

When adjusting for inflation, the story becomes much worse. In 2020 dollars, the FY09 peak was $13,508. By FY20, the local per pupil contribution had fallen to 19.1% below the peak. During this period, the percentage of students receiving ESOL services and free and reduced price meals rose continuously, meaning that needs were increasing as local money per student was not keeping pace with inflation. This is the number one financial challenge faced by MCPS, at least prior to the era of COVID-19.

The school system needs money, and in a political context, extracting money requires power. School board candidates should lay out how they intend to rebuild and unify MCPS’s advocate community. The alternative is to go hat-in-hand to county funders just as one of the worst budget crises in county history erupts – a crisis from which MCPS will not be immune.

What happens when the next school year starts?

MCPS will likely continue online learning for the rest of this school year. But no one knows what will happen when the next school year begins. The options are many and all of them have drawbacks. How would school board candidates balance learning, resources and the health of students, school employees and families?

How can MCPS get more bang for its buck in the capital budget?

MCPS enrollment has been growing rapidly for a decade, but at the moment, the county’s capital budget is shrinking. MCPS’s capital budget has done better than some other programs (especially transportation), but in real dollar terms, it peaked in FY17. The system could be in for cuts early next year because two large sources of school construction funding – recordation tax premiums and impact taxes – are likely to be hit hard by the COVID-19 recession. The General Assembly passed a large expansion of state school construction funding in March but, because it was tied to the Kirwan funding bill vetoed by Governor Larry Hogan, that money is on hold for now.

With enrollment continuing to grow and capital money tight (at best), MCPS will have to get more bang for its buck with whatever capital dollars it can acquire. School board candidates should be prepared to discuss how MCPS can best do that.

What is going on in the central office?

In FY17, MCPS spent $42,850,477 on administration spending. (This category, defined as Category 1 by the state, includes the central office but not school-based administration like principals.) The FY20 approved budget contains $56,084,530 in administration spending, a 31% increase. Over the same period, MCPS’s grand total spending went up from $2,426,611,128 to $2,680,574,773, an increase of 10%. Why has administration spending grown three times as fast as overall school spending? School board candidates should be asking that question and vowing to get answers.

Editor’s Note: MCPS has replied that nearly $9 million of the increase is due to replacing business systems. You can see their response here.

A student speaks about an issue.

Finally, the following was written by my kid, who is a 5th grade MCPS student. Candidates, pay heed as this guy is a future voter!

School lunches have been a problem for a really long time in MCPS, at least in my school. Most of the food that my school provides during our lunch time is pretty low quality. A lot of the food that my school serves is usually very sugary and unhealthy which shouldn’t be the case because there are students who eat that food 5 days a week which I assume is not good for our stomachs. Besides the lunches that students can bring from home, keep in mind that school lunches are the only type of food that is supposed to replenish our energy to keep us active throughout the day. In my opinion all types of students deserve a good lunch, because all of us are working very hard throughout the day. But if some students have to eat unhealthy food as the only source of energy to get them through the day, that is a problem. Point being, please do whatever is necessary to provide healthier lunches for the kids who need them.

PS: Even though I always bring lunch from home, the pizza that my school serves for lunch is straight up kind of disgusting.

If anything is worse than a nasty election, it’s nasty food. No matter how one feels about the boundary analysis, hopefully we can agree on that!

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