The Montgomery County Council unanimously agreed on a budget that would cut school funding, restore funding for a smaller squad of school resource officers and put the county on a more “sustainable” financial path.
The council reached the decision during a work session Thursday morning and is expected to formally adopt the $4.4 billion budget May 26. The budget would go into effect July 1, the start of the 2012 fiscal year.
County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said the council’s budget adopted about “98 percent” of what he had recommended.
The most drastic difference was an additional $25 million cut from the Montgomery County Public Schools budget. MCPS requested $82 million in new funding from the county in order to comply with a state law, which requires spending per pupil to be the same level or higher from year to year. Leggett’s proposed budget did not offer the schools any new aid, and the council did not seek a waiver from the school funding rule.
Failure to comply with the state law would cause MCPS to lose $29 million for the 2012-13 school year. As a result, school officials have viewed the council’s vote as a double whammy. School board president Christopher S. Barclay (Dist. 4) of Takoma Park said Thursday in an emailed statement that classrooms would suffer.
“The council has stated that they support the school system and that its cuts will not hurt the classroom. That simply isn’t true,” Barclay said in the statement. “Every school will feel the effects of these cuts.”
Council members have said they have “unwavering” support of the public school system and believe the cuts could be achieved without affecting the quality of education, but instead could be attained by asking MCPS staff to pay more for benefits.
Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said that the school funding levels of the past were unsustainable, and that other county departments were already feeling the sting of budget cuts, staff reductions and higher medical costs. Ervin said the school system was “squeezing out” the budgets of other agencies.
“Because we have put so much money above what we were required to by law—almost $600 million—what it did was it set the base too high. We couldn’t sustain it any longer,” Ervin said. “The council’s actions are going to reset the base lower so that there’s more money to share for all of the other county’s agencies, like libraries and police.”
The council’s budget also restored more than $2 million in funding for county libraries, found money for six School Resource Officers—a program Leggett’s budget didn’t fund—and restored funding for the Department of Park and Planning.
First-year Councilman Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said he saw the restoration of SRO funding as a highlight of the budget season. There are currently nine officers who split their time among the county’s 24 high schools. There used to be police officers stationed at each high school.
“What happens now is that we really have to take a look at the SRO Program,” Rice said, “meeting with the stakeholders—not only the principals, but the police and parents—to make sure we have a program that makes sense and meets the needs of the community.”
The 2012 budget attempts to fill a $300 million deficit. Leggett said the budget the council favored was a step in the right direction and would lead to smaller deficit next year—about $148 million, said Patrick Lacefield, Leggett's spokesman.
Council members and the county executive said Thursday that other budget adjustments would preserve the county’s AAA bond rating, a grade that reflects financial strength and allows the county to borrow money at lower rates. Changing employee benefits would save the county $33 million in fiscal 2012, Leggett said. The budget also caps borrowing at $310 million, puts more money in reserve, and establishes a trust to fund retiree health benefits.
“With this budget the thing I fought and wanted to make sure we maintained is that it strengthened the county’s sustainability, it strengthened our credibility, and most importantly, it strengthened our case on Wall Street, in terms of our AAA bond rating,” Leggett said. "This budget responds to that while still maintaining central services and programs for us in Montgomery County.”