Tag Archives: school construction

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.


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?


When You’re In a Deep Hole

By Gaithersburg City Council Member Neil Harris.

In a recent meeting with the capital improvements team at MCPS, I suggested that it would take $1 billion in extra capital funding to provide enough classrooms and to fix dilapidated schools. The staff responded that the number was more like $2 billion or more. Ouch.

My guess was based on the basic cost for classroom space of $40K per student. So, an elementary school for 750 kids would cost $30 million. And we have 9,000 kids in portables ($360 million worth of classrooms) and we’re adding 2,500 new students each year ($100 million). I guessed at double that for renovations, but apparently that number is way worse than my rough guess.

In transportation, the situation is even worse. Not only is our system the most congested in the country, but in 25 years the congestion is projected to be 72% worse! In the past 15 years, we’ve added several hundred thousand new residents to the mid- and up-county, and the population will grow by 20%. We’re not keeping up.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) made projections based on the regional long-range plan, which includes all the projects proposed and expected to be funded. The TPB recently looked at the 500 projects proposed but not expected to be funded, and building all of them “only” makes congestion 28% worse. I repeat: building every project proposed still makes congestion 28% worse!

One problem for the TPB is that the projects on their list are proposed by local jurisdictions: the states, counties, and cities, and are most often focused on local needs. There is no central authority over regionally significant ideas that will serve to improve transportation for everyone.

Another challenge is that there is such a huge focus on new transit that it crowds out roads. If you build a new Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) on a Metro Station and 60% of the new residents use Metro, then there are still 40% of the new residents in cars. One mode is not enough, and the current plans look like they are out of balance, with the vast majority of trips by auto in 25 years but most funding going to transit and not highways. To be clear: in 25 years with $100 billion spent on transit in our region, we increase ridership by 2% for work trips, with a huge increase in auto trips and little improvement in our road network.

The TPB bravely took it upon ourselves to develop a list of 10 “potentially game changing” projects, programs, and policies to study, to learn if there are ways to actually reduce congestion instead of surrendering to it. This has been a controversial process thanks to inclusion of a new northern Potomac crossing, but the TPB has recognized that desperate times require desperate measures.

So, where would the money come from to fix these problems, assuming we find good answers and the political will to address them?

For transportation, Northern Virginia has taken the lead. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority collects a small surcharge on some taxes to create $330 million in new funding to reduce congestion. Under this new program, the state and the local jurisdictions are not allowed to reduce transportation funding, so the money goes directly to new programs.

For schools as well as transportation, Adam Pagnucco suggested that Montgomery County’s annual revenue grows by about $140 million each year due to increased income and property tax revenue. How about dedicating all this growth to infrastructure for the next few years, instead of operations? In five years or so, we could be all caught up.

These aren’t the only ways to get out of the hole. We could build schools like the Monarch Global Academy in Laurel, which cost one-third to one-half what MCPS spends on each school. That would stretch our dollars. We could look at the cost-effectiveness of transportation projects already in the pipeline and refocus on ones that make more of a difference.

I hope with the big election year in Montgomery County next year, we can direct the candidates to solve these big challenges as their top priority. We need to understand what projects will actually help and then find ways to pay for them.

Whatever we do, we know one thing – when you are in a hole, first stop digging.

Neil Harris is Vice President of the Gaithersburg City Council and a voting member of the Transportation Planning Board and TPB’s Long Range Plan Task Force.


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.