Tag Archives: MCPS

Hell No!

By Adam Pagnucco.

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

Montgomery County.

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

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

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

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

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

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

HELL NO.

Five Facts About MoCo School Construction Funding

By Adam Pagnucco.

School construction has been one of the hottest issues for years in Montgomery County.  Enrollment in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has been increasing by close to 2,000 students a year for a decade with no sign of stabilizing.  The result is crowded schools throughout the county.

According to the Superintendent’s FY18 Recommended Capital Budget, 109 of MCPS’s 197 schools were over capacity in the 2016-2017 school year.  Of those, 35 had enrollments of at least 120% of their capacity.  Even if the Superintendent’s request is fully funded, by the 2022-2023 school year, 87 schools will be over capacity and 29 will be at least 120% capacity.  Overcrowding will continue because construction will not keep pace with enrollment, which is projected to grow by nearly 10,000 students over that period.  MCPS is using 388 relocatable classrooms this year, a number that has not changed much over the last five years despite significant spending on school construction.

Over 80 percent of MCPS school construction costs are paid by county taxpayers with the remainder coming from state aid.  Here are five facts about school construction that all MoCo residents should know.

  1. MCPS enrollment is growing faster than the rest of the state COMBINED.

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, September enrollment in MCPS grew by 15,036 students between 2005 and 2014.  Over that period, public school enrollment in the rest of Maryland SHRANK by 543 students.  MCPS’s absolute increase and its growth rate (11%) were both first in the state.  Other systems are growing too (notably Howard and Anne Arundel) and all counties have maintenance requirements.  But in terms of new capacity needs, MCPS is in a category of one.

  1. MoCo gets less school construction money from the state per student than all but a handful of other counties.

Over the five-year FY13-17 period, MoCo received $201.7 million in state aid for school construction, just ahead of Baltimore County and tops in the state.  That’s a substantial amount of money.  But relative to its September 2014 enrollment, MoCo’s construction aid per student ($1,306) ranked 18th of 24 jurisdictions.  MoCo had 18% of the state’s public school students but received just 13% of state construction dollars, the biggest gap in the state.

  1. The state’s funding formula discriminates against school construction in MoCo.

The state finances a percentage of eligible costs for school construction projects approved for state aid with the local jurisdiction paying the rest.  MoCo is one of seven jurisdictions for which the state covers 50% of funding for school projects approved by the Board of Public Works, the lowest rate available.  Other jurisdictions including Prince George’s (63%) and Baltimore City (93%) receive much higher cost splits.

  1. State legislators from the City of Baltimore extracted a billion dollars from the state for their school construction program.

In 2013, Governor Martin O’Malley and the General Assembly’s presiding officers made passing a revenue increase for transportation a high priority.  Despite the fact that one of the projects to be funded was Baltimore’s $2.9 billion light-rail Red Line, city legislators withheld their votes until they got more money to rebuild their aging schools.  (City school enrollment fell between 2005 and 2014.)  The result was a new seven-year billion-dollar state aid program for city schools that greased the wheels for the transportation funding hike.  The city delegation’s work shows that significant progress can be made on this issue.

  1. MoCo residents are now paying a new tax hike in part to fund school construction.

Last May, the Montgomery County Council approved a recordation tax increase on home sales projected to raise $196 million over six years.  The council justified the tax hike on the grounds that $125 million of the money was supposed to be spent on school construction.  No recent media reports indicate that any other Maryland county has raised local taxes for the explicit purpose of financing school construction.

Disclosure: Your author’s son attends Flora Singer Elementary School in Silver Spring.  Despite opening just four years ago to relieve overcrowding at nearby Oakland Terrace, the school is already over capacity.

MoCo’s Giant Tax Hike, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

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

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

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

County Per-Pupil Spending on MCPS Nominal

But three items of context apply here.

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

County Per-Pupil Spending on MCPS Real

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

Change in County Spending FY10-FY16

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

MCPS Local Money vs State Aid

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

We will have more in Part Three.

Sebastian Johnson Announces Wave of Endorsements

Former Student Board of Education Member Sebastian Johnson is  seeking an at-large seat in the 2016.

Advantages and Challenges

Johnson’s strongest asset is his impressive resume. After graduating from Montgomery Blair, Johnson received his B.A. in Economics and Government from Georgetown and a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School. Johnson has already worked with kids in the classroom as a teacher and in the community. He’s done a lot at a young age.

Johnson’s biggest campaign challenge is that he is not an MCPS parent. As a result, he doesn’t have experience with MCPS from that perspective. Nor does he have links to the PTA network that often produces successful Board of Education candidates.

Endorsements

Today, his campaign was pleased to announce endorsements from seven elected officials:

Maryland State Delegate David Moon (D-20)
Maryland State Delegate Marice Morales (D-19) Maryland State Delegate Will Smith (D-20)
Montgomery County Councilman George Leventhal (D-AL) Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D-4)
Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart
Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Slavin

Some of the positive comments from elected officials included:

Nancy Navarro: I had the privilege of serving on the Board of Education with Sebastian, and I witnessed his steadfast dedication to public service. He has a keen understanding of the current issues facing our school system, and he brings a fresh perspective to the Board table. I am proud to endorse his candidacy.

George Leventhal: I’m very excited by the prospect of Sebastian returning to the Board of Education, where he served as student member. Sebastian’s life story embodies the success that we seek for all students. I wholeheartedly support his candidacy.

Kate Stewart: As mayor, an advocate for young people and a parent, I trust Sebastian to do what’s right for all of our kids. As a product of Montgomery County schools, he brings a keen insight to the challenges we face today. I can’t think of a better person to serve on the Board of Education, and I strongly endorse his candidacy.

Addressing the Achievement Gap

The achievement gap between White and Asian students compared to their Latino and African-American counterparts has received increasing public attention. The County has a real interest in making sure all students perform well–not just because it’s right but also to assure that the County remains economically competitive. That’s not going to happen with an unskilled workforce.

Today, I thought I’d take a look at some of what Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is already doing as part of its effort to make sure all kids have the skills to succeed. This is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series on public education. My thanks to Andrew Zuckerman, the Chief Operating Officer of MCPS, for providing so much of the information included here.

Choices in how we use our resources make a statement about what we value as a community. Traditionally, Montgomery County has been very supportive of MCPS, which accounts for roughly 50% of the County budget.

Impressively, despite enormous pressures due to tough economic times, the County has largely maintained that commitment. However, increases in the student population have nonetheless forced reductions in spending per pupil. The following graph shows the County contribution per pupil:

MCPS Spending per PupilSource: MCPS

This one reveals the total spending per pupil with state aid:

MCPS total spending per pupilSource: MCPS

Accordingly, it become all the more important that we use the money we have wisely, as is hardly a secret at MCPS. An examination of how MCPS directs it resources reveals that it is spending significantly more in those schools with more disadvantaged students.

The following graph reveals the teaching and staffing allocation to three different types of schools with similar numbers of students:

MCPS teacherSource: MCPS

To help disentangle the argot, Title I schools have high percentages of low-income families and qualify for federal assistance via the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In this Title I school, over one-half speak English as a second language and 82% receive free or reduced price lunches.

Focus schools receive extra attention from MCPS despite not meeting threshold for Title I schools. Eighteen percent of students in this Focus school speak English as a second language and 50% receive free or reduced price lunches.

Low FARM schools have few students receiving free or reduced price meals (read: more affluent). In the low FARM school in the example, just 6% receive free or reduced price meals and 6% speak English as a second language.

As the graph reveals, Title I schools have 59 teachers and staff members while Focus schools have 51. In contrast, the low FARM school has 39.5. The difference is due overwhelmingly to the allocation of additional teachers to Title I and Focus schools.

So even as we continue to discuss additional ways to close the achievement gap so that all students are performing as high as possible, we need to acknowledge that MCPS has directed meaningful resources towards this problem. That doesn’t mean it’s solved, doesn’t merit significant attention, or we don’t need to attack the problem in a variety of ways, but it also means that MCPS is taking real actions to address it and the gap in opportunity between more and less affluent areas of the County.

 

Crossing Swords on Education

The battle has already been joined between Democrats and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on education:

Fissures between Hogan and Democrats had already started to emerge over a budget proposal he submitted Jan. 23, two days after being sworn in. Hogan has stressed that his proposal includes record funding for K-12 education, even though it would provide counties with $144 million less than expected under existing education formulas.

Gov. Hogan says that education is his “first priority” and brags that his budget spends more than ever on education. Only addled Democrats who want to increase spending at out of control rates could think that his mild slowing of spending increases could constitute a cut. Democrats say he is taking an ax to schools.

So Who is Right?

Unfortunately, Hogan’s claims are so much political pap and every bit as reheated as the annual credit taking by legislators and governors alike for having balanced the state budget–something required by our Constitution.

Due to inflation and an expanding student population, spending on education always increases. One has to spend more just to stay even in real terms. This year, Gov. Hogan’s budget proposal reduces spending per pupil by $189. That’s no small amount.

Taking from Public to Fund Private

Hogan wants to further cut spending by making donations to parochial and private schools tax exempt. Sounds nice except that by reducing the tax take, Hogan cuts the funds available for education, effectively shifting spending from public to private schools. How letting me make a tax deductible gift to a DC private school benefits Maryland children remains a mystery to me.

Impact in Montgomery

Hogan would like to become the first two-term GOP governor in a very long time. Towards that end, he wants to appeal to small business owners and people sensitive on taxes in order to chip away further at Democratic margins in Montgomery. Hogan has also targeted Asian Americans, heavily concentrated in Montgomery, through his wife and family as well as substantive appeals.

Except that attempts to cut education will undercut all of these efforts, so he has to mask the cut as an increase. Education is Montgomery’s brand and there is universal commitment to maintaining it. Some may rail against immigration but when people move from around the world and struggle to live here to send their children to our schools, we’re doing something right.

In Montgomery, Hogan’s cuts will drop per pupil spending by $144–a cut that will reverberate through an already burdened school budget. Many moderate Montgomery voters who might be attracted to Gov. Hogan’s other proposals will have trouble getting past that one to even take a look at them.