Category Archives: MCPS

MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

In addition to being one of MoCo’s nastiest races of all time, this year’s school board election is arguably the strangest ever. Consider a list of typical election activities that are hampered or altogether prohibited by the COVID-19 lockdown.

Door knocking – Fuhgeddaboutit.

In-person campaign coffees and fundraisers – Fuhgeddaboutit.

Lit handouts at Metro stations – Fuhgeddaboutit.

Lit drops – It’s not clear if this counts as essential travel. It’s also not clear if this will creep out voters.

Campaign forums – They are not possible to do in person. There are opportunities to do these online but there will be far fewer of them than in a regular cycle.

Poll coverage – Fuhgeddaboutit!!

So what’s left? No candidate currently has the money to do serious mail. Blast emails are possible, but if anyone has an email list, I’m not on it. (For the record, I have been added to TONS of political email lists!) Signs have been distributed along with the usual instances of illegal placement. Bethesda Beat is covered with school board ads. (Steve Hull wins every election!) Social media ads are cost effective and several candidates have used them, but they can’t replace all of the other campaign tools that have been knocked out by the virus. Then there is the word of mouth being circulated by supporters of one candidate or another, but to see it, you have to be connected to the partisans. The HUGE majority of voters are not in these bubbles.

Let’s remember that this is a presidential primary and all county voters with all party affiliations can vote. In the 2016 primary, 183,479 people voted in MoCo’s at-large school board race. That far exceeds the number who vote in mid-term Democratic primaries for governor, county executive and county council at-large, races which have much more financing than school board contests. The two candidates who emerged from the 2016 primary had more than 50,000 votes each. This year’s winning number could be higher if the all-mail election encourages higher turnout as it did in Rockville and also because of national factors.

Given all of these limitations, you would have to be crazy to be a campaign manager in this race!

That said, there are certain factors that could make a difference.

The Apple Ballot

The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has an excellent record of getting its endorsed school board candidates through primaries. MCEA’s choice this year is Universities at Shady Grove professor Sunil Dasgupta, who proudly puts the Apple Ballot front and center on his website. Historically, the union’s most effective tactic has been distribution of Apple Ballots at voting precincts, but that is now impossible due to COVID-19 restrictions and the state’s transition to a mostly mail election. The teachers can still use social media and they have sent at least one mailer promoting their candidate. One note of caution comes from February 2008, when an ice storm shut down MCEA’s poll coverage, resulting in a rare defeat for its candidate in a primary.

The Washington Post

Along with the Apple Ballot, the Post’s endorsement is one of the top two in school board races and has a great record of helping candidates win. At first it seemed the Post was going to sit out the primary (as it has done before), but over the weekend, the newspaper endorsed former PTA president Lynne Harris. This is a huge problem for anti-boundary analysis leader Stephen Austin, who now faces one candidate with the Apple, another one with the Post and a primary from which only two candidates will emerge. One question: with Harris’s lack of funding and the Post endorsement coming so late, will she have the time and bandwidth to capitalize on it?

Stephen Austin’s Facebook Group

Say what you will about Austin and his group, but his page is larger than any other MCPS-related site that could play a part in this election. Consider these Facebook page statistics at this writing.

Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools (Austin’s group): 8,033 members
Montgomery County Education Association: 4,006 followers
Montgomery County Council of PTAs: 1,573 followers
SEIU Local 500 (an endorser of Dasgupta): 1,154 followers
One Montgomery (favors school equity, opposes Austin): 846 followers
Sunil Dasgupta’s campaign page: 595 followers
Stephen Austin’s campaign group: 358 members
Lynne Harris’s campaign page: 275 followers
Jay Guan’s campaign page: 185 followers

None of the candidates’ pages are large enough to have any organic effect on the election though they can be used for ads. But through his “neighbors for local schools” page, Austin can reach out to roughly 8,000 people, an advantage that no other candidate has. In an election with no poll coverage by the Apple Ballot, no ground-level campaigning and no serious money for any candidate, how big of an advantage is this?

One Montgomery’s Attack Piece

The brutal One Montgomery attack piece in Maryland Matters linking Austin to Trump supporters and anti-LGBTQ activists has gotten a lot of attention on his critics’ pages. But has it really penetrated beyond the progressive circles that were unlikely to vote for Austin anyway? For this piece to be truly effective, someone has to place a four- or five-digit social media ad buy to push it out to the general public. Otherwise it will be just one more thing to argue about for the relative handful of folks inside the bubble.

The Alphabet

Don’t laugh, but in down-ballot, under-the-radar races, being near or at the top of the ballot can get a candidate a few extra points. Research of varying quality has found this to be the case in Danish local and regional elections, Vancouver local elections, California state elections, California city council and school board elections, Ohio county elections and British local council elections. Austin will be listed second on the ballot. Will that matter?

However these factors mix, there are two likely scenarios. If Dasgupta and Harris emerge from the primary, this will turn into a traditional Apple vs Post race. But if Austin breaks through to claim one of the primary spots, this will be more insider vs outsider with school boundaries front and center. Jay Guan, the fundraising leader who has mailed a postcard, may also have a chance.

There is more to an election than tactics; there is also policy at stake. Part Three will conclude with a few issues that have been overshadowed by the boundary analysis war but nevertheless warrant attention from the candidates.

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MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part One

By Adam Pagnucco.

Negative campaigning has a long and brutal history in Montgomery County but this year’s school board election is emerging as one of the most contentious contests in decades. The arguments contain echoes of the titanic school board election battles of the early 1980s, in which a conservative faction led by Marian Greenblatt was eventually toppled. Then as now, race, school boundaries, accusations of busing and the shadow of national politics mixed in a bubbling witches’ brew that no cauldron could hold. There is nothing new here. Rather, skeletons emerge from the grave to refight battles that seem as eternal as they are ancient.

The immediate impetus of the current dispute is a change made to MCPS’s facility planning policy in September 2018. Prior to the change, four factors were weighted equally in picking sites for new schools and changing school boundaries: demographic characteristics of student population, geography, stability of school assignments over time and facility utilization. The new policy was revised to contain this sentence on demographics: “Options should especially strive to create a diverse student body in each of the affected schools in alignment with Board Policy ACD, Quality Integrated Education.” Jill Ortman-Fouse, who at that time was on the school board and helped lead the effort to change the policy, justified it by saying, “Diversity matters. Let’s weight that a little bit more.” MCPS followed up by hiring a contractor to study school boundaries and implementing a redistricting in Germantown and Clarksburg that spawned a lawsuit.

Now supporters and opponents of the new facilities policy and the boundary analysis are at war. The leader of the opposition is Stephen Austin, a newcomer to MoCo politics who set up a Facebook group last winter that now has almost 8,000 members. It’s unusual in the county for such a large group to form so quickly without external organization and funding, but schools are a hot issue here for folks with all kinds of perspectives. The other side is a group of MCPS activists favoring the boundary analysis, many of whom have been active on school issues for a long time. Their spiritual leader is Ortman-Fouse, who has made diversity her signature issue both during and after her tenure on the school board. Austin is one of 13 candidates running for an at-large school board seat in a field with varying views on school boundaries. Strong feelings run high on both sides.

My personal sympathies lie with those who favor diverse schools. My upstate New York elementary school was roughly 90% white. When I moved to MoCo, I deliberately chose to live near a diverse public elementary school so that my kid could benefit from being around others with different races, cultures and life experiences. My choice paid off in a BIG way. My kid has experienced both diversity and superb academic instruction at the same time. He is much better prepared for the modern world than I was at his age. So I won’t be voting for any candidate who opposes diversity.

But there is more going on here than just that one issue.

I read the posts in Austin’s Facebook group almost every day. There are statements on there with which I disagree. There is some nastiness directed at the other side (and the press). But there are also participants who express a mixture of curiosity, concern and skepticism. Some distrust what they see as a centralized school bureaucracy that does not communicate very well. (This is one sentiment they share with some on the other side!) There are plenty of folks there who are not white. There has also been discussion of issues other than the boundary analysis. It’s a more complicated place than Austin’s opponents might admit. However, some of the blame for that goes to the moderators who have kicked out people who disagree, causing the exiles to assume the worst since they can’t view the content themselves. Inflammatory tidbits sometimes leak anyway.

I’m not all that worried about the pugilists in the ring. In politics, anyone who throws a punch should be ready to take a punch. But I do wonder about the people in Austin’s group, as well as on other social media threads, who read all of this material and say nothing. What are they thinking? I bet more than a few believe there is no point in saying anything because if they do, and if they vary from the orthodoxy of either side, they will be subject to bitter, public personal attacks. How many folks who have something to contribute will never run for school board or get involved with school issues at all for fear of being hurled into the mud?

Here is a great irony. Austin’s supporters believe that the school board does not do enough to oversee or challenge MCPS management – a view shared by some on the left. It’s a common perception that some school board members get assimilated into the system after winning office (with the notable exception of the 2015 revolt against then-Superintendent Josh Starr). Bereft of a sizeable, independent staff of analysts reporting exclusively to them, the board risks being at the mercy of a management that can control information and set tight boundaries for policy decisions. One school board member who resisted that tendency was none other than Ortman-Fouse, who never backed down from management, regularly demanded (and released) data and engaged in actual constituent service – just like elected officials are supposed to do. Put aside their ideological disagreements and Ortman-Fouse could provide a model of independent-minded school board service that even Austin and his folks could appreciate were it not for their mutual loathing.

At this point, tribal politics has taken over this race. Each tribe fears what the other one will do if it wins. Non-tribe members are barely acknowledged even though at least 99% of the county has no idea what is going on in this election. The disengagement of so many voters and the sheer oddities of present times make this a hard race to divine.

In Part Two, I’ll assess the tactical environment in what might be MoCo’s strangest election ever.

And in Part Three, I’ll talk about a few issues that have been largely undiscussed so far but collectively will determine at least as much of MCPS’s future as any boundary analysis.

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MCPS Distributes Chromebooks Safely

Despite the difficult conditions, MCPS is working to make sure learning continues. The following are photos from outside Chevy Chase Elementary School showing how MCPS arranged the safe distribution of Chromebooks to people in autos and on foot.

Drive through lane
Instructions: don’t roll down the window but do pop the trunk
You’re almost there. . . Pedestrians near the head of the line
Lining up social distancing style on Rosemary Lane
Pedestrian instructions
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MoCo’s Moratorium Madness

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Montgomery County government is currently plagued by a $100 million operating budget shortfall and a shrinking capital budget.  So what is the county doing to revitalize its economy and earn more revenue?

Potentially, imposing more moratoriums on housing construction!

County development rules require moratoriums on housing construction inside school clusters or individual school service areas when projected public school enrollment accounts for 120% or more of capacity five years into the future.  Additionally, elementary schools must be 110 students over capacity and middle schools must be 180 students over capacity to trigger moratoriums.  Projects that are already approved are not halted by moratoriums but new project approvals are not granted.

Last year, the county imposed moratoriums on four high school clusters and 13 individual elementary school service areas.  Those areas accounted for roughly 12% of the county and included high-profile markets in Downtown Silver Spring and North Bethesda, thereby directly thwarting the county’s transit-oriented development strategy.

The problem with stopping residential development is that school impact taxes collected from new units can be a major source of revenue for school construction.  As recently as the FY15-20 amended capital budget, school impact taxes accounted for 15% of MCPS’s school construction budget.  Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.

In a memo to the Montgomery County Planning Board, planning staff noted that the county executive’s new recommended FY21-26 capital budget underfunds MCPS’s construction request by $61 million in FY21, $93 million in FY22, $93 million in FY23 and $57 million in FY24.  One of the biggest reasons for the underfunding is that school impact tax receipts have fallen by more than half since FY14.  The planning staff indicates that if the underfunding results in delayed projects, nine elementary school service areas (Bethesda, Clarksburg, JoAnn Leleck, Rachel Carson, Strawberry Knoll, Summit Hall, McNair, Page and Burnt Mills), one middle school service area (Parkland) and seven high school clusters (Quince Orchard, Richard Montgomery, Albert Einstein, Montgomery Blair, Blake, Northwood, Walter Johnson) may be at risk of moratoriums.  For the Blake, Blair, Einstein and Walter Johnson clusters, this would be the second straight year of moratorium, threatening projects in North Bethesda and Downtown Silver Spring.

The cruel fact here is that reducing residential construction has historically had little if any impact on MCPS enrollment increases.  The chart below shows MCPS enrollment (red line and left axis) and residential units permitted in Montgomery County (blue line and right axis) from 1994 through 2018.  MCPS enrollment comes from the county executive’s recommended budget while permitted units comes from the U.S. Census Bureau.  Over this 24 year period, housing construction has been falling while MCPS enrollment has been rising.  The contrast between the two trends has been most pronounced in recent years.  Housing units permitted has fallen from 3,981 in 2012 to 1,947 in 2018 while MCPS enrollment has grown from 146,497 to 161,470.  It defies logic to blame school crowding on housing construction when homebuilding is in an era of decline.

And so here is the effect of MoCo’s moratorium policy.  Housing construction drops, causing school impact tax payments to plummet and depriving school construction of needed funding.  The county reacts by delaying school projects, triggering moratoriums.  That causes housing construction to decline further and the cycle continues.  None of this helps more schools get built but it definitely constrains housing supply, thereby driving up home prices and making the county even more unaffordable to live in than it already is.  Another effect is that it makes the county radioactive to the real estate and investment communities, thereby pushing them into competing jurisdictions.  It’s no wonder that Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks is celebrating her county’s passing of Montgomery County in job creation.

Using residential moratoriums to prevent school crowding is like treating lung cancer by amputating the patient’s legs.  The treatment does nothing to solve the original problem but it definitely causes new problems to arise!

If you wanted to stop economic growth and make it harder for people to live here, it would be difficult to devise something more attuned to such goals than MoCo’s insane moratorium policy.  The county must bring it to an end.

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Placeholders, Indeed, Do Have a Place in the MCPS Capital Budget

By Glenn Orlin.

In a recent piece in Seventh State it was argued that so-called “placeholder” projects have no place in the Montgomery County Public Schools capital program. But there are very good reasons why the County Council has done exactly that for the past eight years.

First, some background.  The Subdivision Staging Policy (SSP) Public School Adequacy Test compares enrollment five years in advance—at each cluster and level (HS, MS, or ES), and at each school—against the budgeted capacity at each cluster/level and school five school years hence.  If the future enrollment exceeds the future capacity in a cluster by more than 20% at any level, then the cluster goes into a housing moratorium; that is, no more housing subdivisions can be approved until the capacity standard is met.  (Relocatable classrooms are not counted towards “capacity” under the School Adequacy Test.) If the future enrollment exceeds the future capacity in a MS service area by more than 20% and 180 students, then that MS service area goes into a housing moratorium.  If the future enrollment exceeds the future capacity in an ES service area by more than 20% and 110 students, then that ES service area goes into a housing moratorium.  The five-year rule was selected many years ago because, on average, that is how long it takes for a housing subdivision approval to morph into occupied housing units, many of them having kids of school age.

At the start of this decade the Council began the practice of budgeting generic “Solution” (i.e., placeholder) CIP projects in certain circumstances.  The rationale is that while a cluster or school service area might have enrollment that exceeds the moratorium threshold, in many cases MCPS is concurrently planning for a new school or addition that would provide sufficient capacity in time to avoid such a moratorium.  The Council has approved Solution projects only when all the following conditions are met:

  1. A cluster or school service area is projected to exceed the moratorium threshold;
  2. MCPS is concurrently—or about to start—planning for a capital project that would address the potential moratorium; and
  3. MCPS’s normal schedule for planning, design, and construction would have the project’s added capacity opening by the start of the school year five years hence.

The most recent application of the School Test was approved by the Planning Board on June 22, 2017.  The Board placed seven ES service areas into moratorium: Burnt Mills, Highland View, Kemp Mill, Lake Seneca, Rosemont, Strawberry Knoll, and Summit Hall.  At that time, while all of them met Condition #1, none of them met Conditions #2 and #3.  Eight other clusters or school service areas were not placed into moratorium because Solution projects were justifiable and programmed: they met all three conditions.  In the FY19-24 CIP several of these Solution projects will be replaced by specific projects that the Board of Education (BOE) is now officially ready to recommend.  This new CIP will include only four Solution projects.

It is important to note that the decision to budget a Solution project for a school has nothing to do with whether there are new housing applications in that area awaiting the Planning Board’s approval.  Condition #1 occurs either when projected enrollment growth due to turnover, already approved new housing, or both, will be over the capacity threshold.  Whether there are impending housing development applications simply doesn’t matter in the decision to budget a Solution project or not.  Now let’s turn to the examples raised in the earlier Seventh State piece.

Bethesda ES and Somerset ES.  The service areas for both schools in the B-CC Cluster are projected to be well over capacity (+25% and +27%, respectively) in five years, that is, by the start of the 2023-24 school year.  MCPS is initiating an elementary school capacity study for the B-CC Cluster, which would examine a range of options.  The study will be conducted during the 2018-2019 school year.  The Board of Education (BOE) will then be in position to propose a specific project in its FY21-26 CIP request; if that project’s funding were to begin in FY21, then, following the normal schedule for planning, design, and construction it could open at the start of the 2023-24 school year.  Because all three conditions are met—a projected moratorium, planning about to begin, and a path to project completion in five years—the Council is poised to fund Solution projects for Bethesda ES and Somerset ES.  The total amount to be budgeted for these two Solution projects is about $6.4 million.  When a specific project is ready to be budgeted, this $6.4 million will be used to help fund it.

Judith A. Resnik ES.  The current CIP has a fully funded addition at this Magruder Cluster school (which would bring its capacity up to 740), but the BOE deleted the construction funding in its request for the FY19-24 CIP.  Enrollment is trending downward, although in five years it is still projected to exceed the moratorium standard if there is no addition.  The BOE is continuing planning for an addition, however.  So, since all three of the above conditions are met, the Council is planning to fund a $2.7 million Solution project for Resnik ES.

The fourth Solution project is about $6.3 million for Einstein HS, which the Council had already initiated, and the BOE itself has recommended continuing it. Therefore, the sum of the four Solution projects is about $15.4 million.  All but $3.7 million would be programmed in the last three years of the CIP (FYs22-24).

Burnt Mills ES.  This school is projected to be 47% over capacity in 2023-24, so certainly Condition #1 is met.  However, MCPS is requesting the Council to set aside in the CIP $120 million (talk about your placeholders!) while it undertakes a thorough review of the prior revitalization/expansion program “in order to develop a multi-variable approach to determine the priority order of large-scale renovations, possibly including programmatic and capacity considerations” (Superintendent’s FY19 CIP Request, page 1-2).  Therefore, the Burnt Mills situation meets neither Condition #2 nor #3.  Once the BOE has determined a strategy for this school, its improvement would either be partially funded as a Solution project or fully funded from the outset.

Ashburton ES.  If the argument is being made that Solution projects are budgeted to meet the desires of new development, then consider the case of Ashburton in the Walter Johnson Cluster.  It is projected to be more than 22% over capacity five years from now, meeting Condition #1.  Just last fall the Council approved the Rock Spring Master Plan which allows for at least 2,300 more housing units than exists or is already approved.  Almost all the Rock Spring area is within the Ashburton ES service area.  Nevertheless, since MCPS is not undertaking planning for additional capacity that would further relieve Ashburton, its service area will go into a housing moratorium in July.

E. Brooke Lee MS Addition. When the Council approves the CIP, it assures that there is enough money to pay for the projects it is budgeting in each of the CIP’s six years.  The Council is approving a tighter CIP this year than in the past, because it recognizes that debt service on borrowing has grown too high.  (Debt service is an obligation that must be paid before anything else in the budget, including salaries.)  Earlier this year the Council asked for the Superintendent to provide it with a list of “non-recommended” projects that would be the first choices to be reduced or deferred, should the Council need them to meet the spending limits.

One of the projects on his list was to delay the construction funding for Lee MS by one year, although not to delay the first-year (FY19) design funds, which would allow the opportunity for the project to be reaccelerated next year.  In its worksession on April 17, several members of the Council expressed the desire to delay neither the design nor the construction funds for the Lee MS project.  To accommodate this desire, there is a shortfall of $8 million in FY20 and $9.5 million in FY21 for which funds must be found.  We will do our best to do that, but deleting the Solution projects would contribute nearly nothing to this effort; there is only $169,000 in Solution project funds in FY20, and only $3.6 million in FY21; the remaining $11.7 million is in FY22 and later.

Do Solution projects almost never get done in five years, as the Seventh State article claims?  In fact, almost every project does get done within five years, or, the BOE later decides that the project isn’t needed after all.   In the article, it is stated that most of the Solution projects added in FY15 did not translate into actual projects within five years, which would have been the 2019-2020 school year.  For FY15 the Council added Solution projects for five Downcounty Consortium elementary schools: Brookhaven, Glen Haven, Highland, Kemp Mill, and Sargent Shriver.  Two years later, however, the BOE retracted its request for these projects, noting that the projected seat deficits were no longer high enough for it to request funds for additions there (see the FY17 Educational Facilities Master Plan, pages 4-37 through 4-41).

Is “real money” being taken out of the MCPS for Solution projects?  In a word, no.  The Council never budgets all the money it could in the CIP.  This is because the Council needs to reserve funds for: (1) when construction bids come in over estimates; (2) for when projects that are in the planning stage are ready for construction funding later in the CIP period; and (3) for unanticipated opportunities or emergencies that arise.  For these reasons, the Council this year will probably set aside a capital reserve of about 9% of the funds available for budgeting, as has been recommended by the County Executive.  But, after all, a Solution project is but a designated reserve, so the Council—as it has in the past—will likely set an undesignated capital reserve less than the Executive recommended by the $15.4 million in these Solution projects.  Therefore, the Solution projects do not compete with other projects in the MCPS CIP, nor with those in the County Government, Montgomery College, or Park & Planning CIPs.  If anything, the Solution projects provide a first claim on the capital reserve.

In summary, Solution projects in the CIP in no way compete with other projects, and they avoid housing moratoria in certain situations where they are not warranted.

Glenn Orlin is the Deputy Director of the Office of the County Council.  He has been the Council’s CIP Coordinator for the last 26 years.

 

 

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Placeholders Have No Place in the MCPS Capital Budget

By Laura Stewart.

Have you ever heard of the term “placeholder” in the county budget? I never had, until as a PTA President, I started to advocate for an elementary school that had 9 portables. The terminology surrounding placeholders was confusing.  At first it sounded like a planning tool that might be helpful.  But as I have looked at the scenarios in front of us in this budget cycle, I believe that real solutions need to take place instead of placeholders.  I will explain by using two real life scenarios below, followed by a review of the consequences of the current County Council’s SSP (Subdivision Staging Policy.)

Scenario 1:

An elementary school has just received an addition due to housing turnover, new development, and a boundary change that was intended to address split articulation patterns and crowding at other schools.  After the addition was completed, the school immediately became over-crowded again and now has four portables. More development is underway in the area, and it will cause even more crowding at the school.

Due to county policy, future development goes into moratorium when a school is forecast to be over 120% capacity at year 5 in the budget, unless there is a “solution.” That solution can be a “placeholder,” money put in the budget that covers the extra seats a development will create, based on the County’s “student generation rates.”  This money is not tied to a specific plan. It is only there to prevent the area from going into moratorium. The school system promises to develop an actual project in time for the seats to materialize in the next 5 years.  This school gets assigned a “placeholder” by the Council since a capacity project is not included in the Board of Education’s recommended FY19 budget.

Scenario 2:

A school has been over 120% capacity since 2011 and is at 151% today.  A plan to address the overcapacity is not included in the Board of Education (BOE) Recommended FY 19-24 budget.  Since there are no pending development projects in this part of the county, no “solution project” is proposed by the County Council, and the area officially goes into a housing moratorium.

Scenario 1 is in Bethesda, scenario 2 is in East Silver Spring.  Neither community is happy with place holders!

I will first explain why the areas with development aren’t happy.  The scenario 1 school, Bethesda ES, is in an area where housing development continues.  In fact, there are an additional 11 buildings submitting applications in the area under a recently approved master plan. Somerset Elementary School is in a similar situation and the Council has proposed a placeholder for that school as well. There is no actual plan for another addition at the Bethesda school (which may not even be possible, given the small site size,) or a plan for a new elementary school nearby. New schools, even at properties MCPS already owns, are much more expensive than additions. Additions also can cost more than the placeholder price tag that is included in the budget. Placeholders are supposed to guarantee seats in 5 years, but the past has shown that projects almost never get done in that time period.  Of the last five placeholders that had a due date before 2018, only one project finished by the due date. Another 4 placeholders added in FY15 were postponed the following year. Continuing development with a placeholder causes schools to go way over capacity, often much more than the initial 120% threshold, by the time there is a real solution.

Now let’s look at Scenario two.  East Silver Spring does not have pending development. The school that is the most overcrowded in the area is Burnt Mills ES, at 151% and over 200 children are in portables. In fact, this school has been over the 120% threshold since 2011, when the feasibility study was done. No project for this school is in the FY2019-2024 CIP. They will be considered in the new renovation and expansion program in a future CIP, but there are limited funds and there are many schools that will be considered. There are no guarantees for this school. So this area is now officially in moratorium, and has been for a while.  Relief at Burnt Mills seems elusive without any project on the books. Parents feel like they do not get the attention that other areas with lots of development get.  They are not wrong. Even though placeholders aren’t solutions, at least the conversation about a possible solution takes place at the County Council.

Seven areas are in housing moratorium in Montgomery County, but only three had placeholders proposed to be added in this budget cycle, two in Bethesda and one in Gaithersburg. I’ve spoken to parents in Bethesda that would rather have a building moratorium take place so the County could take time to come up with a real planned solution. The Gaithersburg school, Judith A. Resnik ES, had an addition project scheduled with a completion date. The enrollment there is trending down slightly, but is still projected to be at 122% capacity within 5 years.  To avoid a moratorium, the County removed an actual project (the scheduled addition), and added a placeholder.

Real money is taken out of the MCPS budget for placeholders, instead of actually using those funds for planned projects. In fact, several projects that were proposed in the BOE Recommended FY19 Budget are slated to be delayed due to lack of funds, including Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School. It is considered a “sick” building by many teachers and parents. Mold and other issues come up regularly. They were elated to have a project that had a completion date of September 2021, only to be deeply disappointed when they were included in the delay list. Placeholder money – used to avoid putting development in moratorium- could be allocated NOW to schools with greater needs than the areas with pending development. Placeholders compete for scarce funds in the CIP.

There is another unintended consequence of giving placeholder money to areas of higher growth. These areas tend to be more affluent. So the optics continues to perpetuate the perceived and the real divide between East County and West County. For instance, there are huge disparities in wealth in our two scenarios. Bethesda ES has a 7.3% Free and Reduced Meals Rate (FARMS.) Burnt Mills ES has 67.1% FARMS.  The affluent area gets the attention of councilmembers and solution/placeholder projects – that may or may not actually come to fruition – while poorer areas are left out. This policy also divides the County North and South too, because rural areas do not have the growth that down county areas receive.

I am in no way blaming Councilmembers or insinuating that they mean to ignore certain areas of the County. I know that many fight for scarce resources, and fight to bring economic growth in underperforming areas of the County. I am blaming the processes and policies that perpetuate inequalities and perception of inequalities in our school system. I propose changing the system.  We can come together as a community and find a better way forward. Let’s get developers, Council Members, the Board of Education, the MCPS Division of Long Range Planning, and the Planning Department together and come up with REAL solutions so we can finally build real classrooms for kids, no matter in which zip code they live.

Laura Stewart is the CIP Chair for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs.

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Team MoCo

By Adam Pagnucco.

Yesterday, we wrote about the recent history of MCPS and it was not a pretty picture.  The recession, new state laws, political conflict and the erosion of a once-strong consensus around the public schools resulted in MCPS getting lower funding increases than most of the rest of county government, especially when measured in local dollars.  But the good news here is that change is coming to MoCo with the sheer number of open seats in county elected offices.  There is a better way forward.  And today, we will plot out what that way can be.

First, let’s steal a page from the playbook of former MCPS Head Coach Jerry Weast and recognize this: nothing brings folks together like a common enemy.  The Axis powers brought together America and the Soviet Union.  The New England Patriots brought together nearly all NFL fans without ties to the Greater Boston area to root for the not-quite-as-bad Philadelphia Eagles.  And Donald Trump may just bring together the feuding members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who hate Trump more than they dislike each other.

The various factions of MoCo’s education family do not have a common enemy, but they do have a common challenge: dealing with Annapolis.  The state capital poses three problems for MoCo’s public schools.  First, the state has a Governor who has cut education funding before (especially state aid for MoCo) and is doing it again.  Second, while the state has improved recently, it still short changes MoCo on school construction money and the county cannot keep up with capacity needs on its own.  And third, a consultant advising the state’s Kirwan Commission on education reform has recommended massive cuts to state operating aid to MCPS.  If all three of these things proceed in a baleful direction, MCPS’s funding issues will get a lot worse and the entire county – parents, students, school employees, residents and businesses – will pay a steep price.

When you get past the details of MCPS’s recent money problems, one root cause stands out: political division in the wake of Weast’s departure.  The County Executive, the County Council, MCPS leadership, the MCPS unions and the PTAs all have different priorities and different views on MCPS funding, and they often go in different directions.  That has to stop or things won’t change.  We need a Team MoCo.  And here’s what that looks like.

County Council

The council has one job when it comes to the schools: funding them.  And since the schools are both a critical public policy priority as well as a big political priority for the voters, their funding situation must improve from the last eight years.  The council largely got this right in its FY18 budget, which gave MCPS a modest (roughly $20 million) increase over the state’s Maintenance of Effort requirement.  The policy of regular, modest per pupil local dollar increases that will – at the very least – keep pace with MCPS’s costs and needs should continue.

The council must not get involved in sensitive internal MCPS issues, especially in pressuring the system on its collective bargaining agreements.  Blowing up the union contracts in 2016 was a major mistake and caused a serious breach of trust.  Let MCPS management and the unions decide what the agreements look like in the context of their total budget.  If the council does not stay out of this, Team MoCo will crumble and the entire arrangement will fall apart.

Superintendent and Board of Education

If the council gives MCPS leadership the funding it needs, then MCPS leadership must reciprocate by giving the council what it needs: fiscal stability.  The state’s Maintenance of Effort (MOE) law, which was rewritten in 2012, sets each year’s local dollar per pupil funding as a base for future years.  Every time the base goes up, it becomes a new base and can only be lowered by a waiver from the State Board of Education.  This is a major concern for the council and was partially responsible for several years of per pupil cuts and freezes.  Given the immense implications of this for the county’s budget and AAA bond rating, the council is right to be wary of going too far above MOE.

Fortunately, § 5-202 (d) (9) of the state’s education law specifies that the State Board of Education shall grant an MOE waiver “in the amount that has been agreed on by the county and county board that is attributable to reductions in recurring costs.”  In other words, if the county falls into another big recession and it has to cut costs in the school system along with all the other agencies, it can get a waiver if the school board agrees.  This deal must be honored by MCPS: if the council extends its trust by funding them, MCPS must agree to reciprocate by helping to relieve the county of financial stress in dire circumstances.  Both sides must stick to this or relations will revert to the bad old years.

MCPS Unions and PTAs

MCEA and SEIU Local 500 are two of the most powerful players in county politics.  The PTAs do not endorse candidates, but they have listservs that include thousands of parents and therefore – at least in theory – have a big voice.  These organizations should function as the muscle of Team MoCo.  They will be getting regular funding increases and, in return, they should help the Team pressure Annapolis to get what is needed for the county.

MoCo Delegation

If Team MoCo gets its act together and strikes an equitable deal for local funding for the schools, the remaining challenges lie in Annapolis.  Rockville does not understand Annapolis.  It does not fully appreciate the obstacles faced by the delegation in pursuing county priorities: the perception of MoCo by the rest of the state as paved in gold; the competing priorities of other population centers in the state; the constraining effect of the legislature’s leadership; and the fiscal constraints of the state’s own tight budget.  Given those hurdles, it’s a heavy lift for the delegation to bring back Big Bacon to MoCo.  But it can be done: witness the Baltimore City delegation’s victory in getting the state to pump a billion dollars into the city’s school construction program.  The city legislators are not smarter than MoCo’s legislators (although they are more parochial).  A big reason for their win was that the entire city stuck together, from the Mayor to the City Council to the city legislators to the folks back home who wanted the money.  Team Baltimore got a billion dollars.  We need a Team MoCo to do something similar.

The role of the county leadership and its constituent groups is to set a mark for the delegation and do everything possible to help them stay organized and succeed.  This is not easy; the other jurisdictions and the presiding officers won’t just roll over for us.  Every member of Team MoCo has to tell our delegation with one unified voice, “We have your backs.  We know it’s a lift, but if you come through for us, we will celebrate you like the heroes you are.  You will never have to buy a drink for yourselves in Rockville ever again.  And if you don’t come through, you will not be served a drink in Rockville ever again!”  Good performance must be rewarded.  Bad performance must be met with accountability.

One more thing: the delegation has an ace card.  Senate President Mike Miller and Speaker Mike Busch are not going to run the General Assembly for much longer.  Successors to their thrones are making the rounds and lining up votes, however quietly.  The MoCo legislators should tell all of them that whoever gives the county the best deal on schools will lock up all their votes.  It’s huge leverage that should not be wasted, but it will only be used if it pays off in political terms.  Team MoCo’s job is to make sure it does pay off so the Big Bacon gets served.

County Executive

This is the most critical person in this entire endeavor.  Every team needs a Captain.  In MoCo, that has to be the Executive.  This individual is the county’s spokesperson and the one everybody else will inevitably look to for leadership.  The Executive must be a troubleshooter who works out periodic squabbles between the different members of the family, charts out a general course on budgets and state action and makes sure everyone gets the credit they deserve.  Most of all, the Executive must be a LEADER.  The lesson from the aftermath of Weast is that without central leadership, everything can fall apart.  If we pick the right Executive, that won’t happen and Team MoCo can succeed.

And so if everything works out, everyone wins.  The county gets its fair share from the state.  MCPS stakeholders get the funding they need.  MCPS employees get fair compensation and the resources they need to do their jobs.  The elected officials get to be heroes.  And the county as a whole will maintain its status as one of the best places to live on Planet Earth.

We can do it, folks.  Yes we can!  If you agree, ask the candidates how they intend to play on our team and keep it in mind for Election Day.  Team MoCo will only come together if the voters demand it.

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Where Will the Apple Drop?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Many moons ago, when your author was young and blissfully new to the county, we wrote our very first blog post on the mighty Apple Ballot.  It was unimaginatively titled, “The 800 lb Gorilla of MoCo Politics.”  Then as now, the Apple was one of the most coveted endorsements in MoCo.  But my oh my, so much has changed.

Back in the Age of the Golden Apple, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) was the centerpiece of a powerful political organization created by then-Superintendent Jerry Weast.  Weast was not a pro-union progressive by nature, but he understood that politics is a team sport and it was necessary to play it to get money.  So the Weast Machine included the education unions (MCEA, SEIU and the principals), the PTAs, the Washington Post editorial page and the school system’s internal Ministry of Propaganda.  (That was not its title, but you get the point!)  Weast traded real input in the MCPS budget for stakeholders in return for absolute loyalty in joint combat against the outside – especially the County Council.  Anyone who messed with the school system didn’t take on Weast alone – they had to go against the entire Machine.  Weast capitalized on his organization as well as productive relationships with County Executive Doug Duncan and County Council Education Committee Chair Mike Subin to get substantial and regular budget increases.  The whole system was greased by strong revenue growth and occasional tax hikes.

The District 18/Silver Spring version of the Apple Ballot from 2006.  This is the document that began your author’s career in blogging.

Those days are long gone.  Three major changes have occurred over the last ten years.

First, Weast jumped the shark – not once, but twice.  His first big sin was calling union leaders to his house to ask them to endorse Nancy Navarro in the 2008 Council District 4 special election.  That attracted criticism from multiple Council Members as inappropriate conduct by an appointed non-partisan administrator.  His second big sin was threatening to sue the county over a budget disagreement two years later.  These kinds of behavior helped convince Weast’s adversaries that he was not merely an irritant, but an actual threat, and prompted some to brand him a Rogue Superintendent.  That set the stage for the bitter budget battles to come.

Second, the county and regional economies were greatly weakened in the wake of the Great Recession.  The chart below shows growth in county revenue (excluding intergovernmental aid) over the last twenty years.  Red bars indicate years in which major tax hikes were passed.  From FY98 through FY09, a generally prosperous economy helped county revenues grow by an annual average of 6.2%.  But from FY10 through FY18, the days of the Great Recession and beyond, county revenues grew by an annual average of 3.1%.  (That does not include the recent $120 million budget shortfall.)  There is simply not as much money to go around as there used to be.  Accordingly, revitalizing the economy should be a huge policy objective for all of the county’s employee unions and everyone else who cares about funding local government.

Third, the local money that was available was not as directed to MCPS as it once was.  There are many reasons for that: the Holy War that broke out between the County Council and the school system in Weast’s final days; dissatisfaction with changes to the state’s Maintenance of Effort law; the state’s execrable decision to shift part of the teacher pension burden down to the counties, which is costing MoCo tens of millions of dollars every year and stifling funding for other priorities; and the growth of many other needs in the county’s budget.  Council Member Nancy Floreen defended the county’s record on MCPS funding and your author offered a reply.

Whatever the reasons, MCPS has not received operating fund increases commensurate with most of the rest of the government in recent years.  The chart below shows budgetary growth by major department and agency from FY10, the peak year before the Great Recession, through FY18.  The effects of the recently approved mid-year savings plan are shown at right.  Note that the time period includes the recession itself, the recovery years afterwards and the FY17 9% property tax hike which was marketed as a boost for education.  MCPS’s total funding increased by 13% over these eight years, roughly half the 25% increase for the total county government.  Non-local funding for the schools, the huge majority of which is state aid, went up by 33%.  But local funding for the schools went up by just 6% as the county spent its own money disproportionately on other activities.  Meanwhile, MCPS’s enrollment went up by 15% during this period.

The Weast Machine has been shattered.  Its demise was due to the decline of the economy, conscious policy choices by county decision makers and, ironically, because of the school system’s own leadership as well.  The key moment came in the spring of 2016, when the County Council conditioned its offer of a substantial increase in MCPS funding on a requirement that it go to reducing class size and not to increasing teacher compensation.  The Weast Machine would have resisted that condition, but the system’s leadership agreed to it.  And so the council voted unanimously to instruct the school system to shift $37 million from employee compensation to class size reduction and the school system reduced teacher raises to comply.  The legacy of this moment is that there is no longer a united front between MCPS leaders and their unions – a major loss of leverage in the school system’s dealings with county electeds.  The end result was not so great for the council either as voters, displeased by the big tax hike that year and not mollified by the compensation changes, went on to overwhelmingly approve term limits.

MCEA runs a Facebook ad against the $25 million mid-year cut to MCPS.  The union flooded a town hall meeting with the County Executive to protest it but the County Council approved the cut unanimously.

MCEA will be deciding its 2018 endorsements for county office in the weeks to come.  In the contested races for County Executive, Council At-Large and Council Districts 1 and 3, the mighty Apple Ballot could play a huge role.  Where will the Apple drop?  That depends on how MCEA answers the following two questions.

What to Do With the Incumbents?

Incumbents usually win and MCEA has endorsed the majority of them, including ones who were lukewarm on their issues, in the past.  But in this case, most of the incumbent Council Members voted for multiple very tough budgets, all of them supported reducing teacher raises as a condition of approving more MCPS funding and all of them just voted for a $25 million mid-year cut to MCPS.  Can those strikes be offset by other considerations?

How to Find Someone Better?

Let’s be fair to the incumbents: the recession, the new Maintenance of Effort law and the partial shift of teacher pension funding to the counties created very hard choices.  No matter what they did, the incumbents would have offended someone.  Would the legions of challengers now vying for the Apple’s attention really have done better?  Which ones among them understand the very real and very complicated budget issues that face policy makers?  Which ones will aggressively pursue economic revival, which is necessary for financing all county services – not just MCPS – and supporting justified raises for county employees?  Which ones have the competence to deliver and the character to fight for teachers, parents and students alike?

When those questions are answered, we will know where the Apple drops.

End Note: For those who wish to study MCPS’s funding history, we reprint the following graphic from the County Executive’s recommended FY18 budget below.

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No-Win Situation: Council Angers Two Influential Groups at the Same Time

By Adam Pagnucco.

Suppose you’re a County Council incumbent gearing up for the next election.  There are eight months to go.  The economy isn’t great.  A big, unpopular tax hike was passed a year ago.  Seventy percent of the voters just voted for term limits.  Dozens of challengers with all kinds of messages carrying the powerful weapon of public financing are fanning out through the county.  So what do you do?

There may not be a lot of good options these days, but antagonizing two of the more powerful groups in the county would not be a high priority on anyone’s list.  And that’s what happened last Tuesday.

The pebble in the council’s shoe this time was debt service.  Much of the county’s six-year capital budget is financed by bonds, and of those, the biggest single financing source for projects is General Obligation (GO) bonds.  GO bonds are not tied to specific revenue sources as some other bonds are; rather, they are backed by the full faith and credit of the county.  The county is rightly proud of its AAA GO bond rating, the highest rating offered by credit agencies, and kept it even through the terrible years of the Great Recession.  But maintaining a AAA rating, which allows the privilege of paying the lowest interest rates on the market, is difficult.  When a local jurisdiction carries too much debt relative to its resources, it risks a downgrade and higher interest rates.  County leadership is justifiably careful about this and has acted to protect its bond rating in the past.

Recently, County Executive Ike Leggett requested that the council cut the level of GO bonds issued in future years, saying that the current amount is excessive and might be regarded as a credit risk.  Last Tuesday, the council unanimously voted to cut the six-year issue of GO bonds from $2.04 billion (the level in the last capital budget) to $1.86 billion.  On an annual basis, GO bond issuances would decline from $340 million in FY18 to $300 million in FY22-24.

The concerns of the Executive and the council about GO bonds are legitimate.  Bonds are paid off through debt service, which is part of the operating budget and competes with other types of spending.  But debt service is a different kind of spending than any other county expenditure.  Once bonds are issued, they MUST be paid one way or the other or the alternative is default.  Below is the recent history of county debt service payments in comparison to the total tax-supported budget.  Debt service roughly doubled between FY05 and FY18.  As a percent of the tax-supported budget, it fell from 7.3% in FY04 to 6.0% in FY09, but has since risen to 8.5% in FY18.  If it keeps rising, it will eventually squeeze out money for public schools operations, public safety and a range of valuable services.

Much of the increase in debt service has been driven by school construction.  The county’s six-year capital budget in FY05-10 included $786 million in local funding for school construction.  By the FY17-22 capital budget, that total had risen to $1.4 billion.  That’s real money, folks!  And while the state kicks in school construction money too, it could do a better job of it.

The council’s cut of GO bonds is normally the kind of action that occurs after an election, not right before one.  Now the county’s elected officials are in trouble with two influential groups.

The PTAs

The Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) have one of the largest networks in the county.  Almost every one of the county’s 200 or so public schools has a PTA.  Most have groups of officers and many have volunteer committees.  Perhaps most importantly, most have listservs with parents on them.  No one really knows exactly how many parents are on the PTA listservs, but it is at least in the thousands.  The PTAs don’t endorse candidates, but they have a large latent communication capacity to inform parents about the actions of politicians.  Accordingly, they are one of the great sleeping giants of county politics.

Perhaps the number one issue for the PTAs is school construction.  Last year, they strongly supported a recordation tax increase proposed by Council Member Nancy Floreen that was marketed at the time as being mostly intended to pay for more schools.  The size of that tax hike (roughly $200 million over six years) is close to the size of the present cut in GO bond issuances ($180 million over six years).  That suggests that the tax hike will be at least partially supplanted and – after capital money is moved around – will now be effectively used to reduce future debt service, not to finance additional school construction as the council promised.  That is not going over well with the PTAs.

The Realtors

The Realtors are one of the most active political players in the county, especially inside the business community.  They spent $45,000 on direct contributions to county-level candidates in the 2014 cycle – including to County Executive Leggett and eight winning council candidates – and spent tens of thousands more on mailers promoting their endorsees.  Nonetheless, they were targeted by the recordation tax increase and fiercely resisted it.  If the increase were marketed as paying down debt service, which now could be the case through the backdoor, the PTAs would never have come out to support it and it would probably have died.  Now the rationale used to defeat the Realtors – school construction – has been put in question by subsequent action of the council.

The PTAs and the Realtors may have disagreed about the recordation tax hike, but they may now both see it alongside the GO bond cut as a bait and switch.  One big group got a tax increase it didn’t want.  The other big group may not get the spending increase it did want.  Neither group is happy.

So here’s the question.  What happens next?

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More on MCPS Funding

By Adam Pagnucco.

Word has reached Seventh State that the governing establishment in Rockville is displeased with our recent post on MCPS funding, questioning whether our data is accurate.  Let’s establish the data’s presence in the public record.

The assertion in our post generating the most unhappiness is that the county cut local support for MCPS while it gave most other functions of government double digit increases over the FY10-16 period.  Local funding for MCPS can be found in the County Executive’s recommended budget.  The table excerpted below shows a $33 million cut in local funding for MCPS between FY10 and FY16.  That happened at the same time that enrollment grew from 140,500 to 156,514, an 11% increase.  Another item of interest is how dependent the county is now becoming on state aid for school operating funds.  For much of the 1980s and 1990s, at least 80% of MCPS’s operating budget was financed with local funds.  Now, the local share is down to roughly two-thirds.

As for the other departments and agencies, actual funding for FY10 can be found here and approved funding for FY16 can be found here.  Those data points, along with the MCPS local funding history above, are assembled in the table below which shows how much of an outlier MCPS was during the FY10-16 period.  Three notes.  The Department of Environmental Protection’s big increase is due to a hike in the water quality protection charge, which is used to finance stormwater projects mandated by the state.  It does not reflect a significantly greater draw on property tax revenues.  The Department of Housing and Community Affairs’ budget drop reflects a significant one-time expenditure for the Housing Investment Fund in FY10.  It does not illustrate a slash in the department’s operating activities.  The Department of Transportation’s operating budget is not included in this data because it was subject to departmental restructuring in FY11, preventing an apples-to-apples comparison.

Data on the county’s local per pupil contribution to MCPS can be found in this Office of Legislative Oversight report appendix and in County Council budget packets like this one.  This information was the basis of our statements that the county cut per pupil local funding for three straight years and froze it for four straight years, as illustrated by charts we published a year ago.  The Maryland State Department of Education’s Fact Books are our source for the actions of other counties after the Maintenance of Effort (MOE) law was changed.  During the first three years of the new MOE law, most other counties – including ones controlled by Republicans – increased their local per pupil contributions while Montgomery County did not.

Let’s be fair.  There is an intellectually honest argument to explain these actions.  Here’s a statement from Hypothetical Council Member X, who has decided to level with constituents about the county’s history of funding public schools.

Yes, we cut MCPS during the Great Recession.  We had to.  Our reserves were being drained to zero and we were about to lose our bond rating.  We were raising the energy tax, breaking our collective bargaining agreements, furloughing county employees and laying some of them off.  State law prevented us from cutting MCPS like the other agencies, so we did what we had to do.  The state also shifted a portion of its responsibility for paying teacher pensions down to the counties and now we are paying $60 million a year for that.  But it’s true that we squeezed MCPS longer and harder than any other part of county government and that was a mistake.  We tried to reverse that with the 9% property tax hike.  Going forward, we should give MCPS small and steady increases so we don’t run into problems with our schools again and we will pay for it by restraining growth in the rest of the government.

There’s a reason why intellectually honest arguments are not often used in politics: they are not pretty!  But it’s time to be honest about where we have been and where we are headed.  That SHOULD be what the next election is about.

One more thing.  The establishment may choose to respond with a guest blog.  We welcome fact-based debate.  But we caution anyone who responds that they must acknowledge and address the data we present here that appears in the county’s own budget documents.  Failure to do so will be perceived as political pap and puffery by Seventh State’s discerning readers.

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