Montgomery schools chief adds more staff pay at the last minute to next year’s budget -- Gazette.Net


Just before Montgomery County’s school board approved Superintendent Joshua P. Starr’s $2.2 billion request for the next budget year Monday night, Starr bumped up the amount he set aside for employee pay raises.

Starr is now requesting about $6 million more for compensation increases, bringing the total that he wants to hold as a “placeholder” up to about $18.6 million. The school system still is negotiating with the three unions that represent its employees.

Members of the Montgomery County Board of Education said it will now take a fight to persuade the Montgomery County Executive and County Council members to approve the budget request, which is about $57.5 million more than the current school year and about $10 million beyond what the county is required to pay under Maintenance of Effort, a state funding law that requires the county to supply at least the same amount of money per pupil each year.

The request would boost the county’s per-pupil spending by about 70 or 80 dollars, school system staff estimated Monday night.

The executive and the council will consider the school system’s budget for approval this spring.

Michael A. Durso (Dist. 5) of Silver Spring was the only board member to vote against the budget Monday.

Durso said Tuesday he does not think it is the appropriate time for the school board to ask the county for more than the minimum.

“I think that all of us are torn between what we feel the school system needs and a balance with what can be afforded,” Durso said. “It just doesn’t seem to me that in this current climate, and from past experience, it is best to use this strategy. But I guess time will tell.”

The county is facing an estimated $135 million shortfall for the next budget year, which begins July 1. County Council members have said that, because of this, and recent spending decisions on the school board’s part, they will not give the school system more per-pupil next school year.

Starr has said his budget focuses on restoring and adding positions and initiatives that address enrollment growth, interventions for underachieving students, and supports needed for implementing new curriculum and state tests.

Barclay said the school system’s funding needs to increase because there are more minority students, more low-income students, a need to still address a gap in achievement between these groups and their peers, and the need to pay the system’s teachers well.

The school board and school system advocates now need to work hard to show the council that the system needs the money to maintain the quality of education in Montgomery County, school board President Christopher S. Barclay said.

“The PR campaign that has gone on for the last two years to demonize the investment that our county has made in education has to be countered,” Barclay said.

Barclay said he thinks the board has a “responsibility to help the public understand” that the request is not a lot to ask for.

The council has grown critical with the school board’s spending in the last few years — most recently disagreeing with the board’s decision this summer to provide base salary increases for employees, when county employees received a one-time bonus.

But details of the county union contracts were released earlier this month, showing that county employees will receive a base raise for the first time in three years.

Tom Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association, said Thursday that the teacher’s union was waiting to finalize contracts until hearing from County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) how much of an overall increase county employees will receive, as a percentage of the county’s wage base.

Starr’s amended budget takes into consideration $7 million more state aid than originally projected; realizes $15.15 million in cost savings, mostly in employee health care; and adds the compensation placeholder and $3.99 million for more psychologists, counselors, curriculum training, special programs and more.

Starr said he used feedback from the community and the Montgomery County Board of Education to make the changes.

Several school counselors and psychologists testified at the first school board budget forum last month. Several community members spoke of the need for greater teacher supports for the implementation of the school system’s new Curriculum 2.0.

In his new proposal, Starr adds five school psychologists and restores two counselors that were cut at elementary schools and adds $2.13 million for Curriculum 2.0 implementation. Curriculum 2.0 encompasses new ways of teaching students, particularly in elementary grades.

Debra Wotherspoon, president of the Montgomery County School Psychologists’ Association, said these restorations show that the board and superintendent realize the importance of giving students adequate psychological support.

Wotherspoon said it would have taken 30 more positions — up from about 70 — to ensure that each school psychologist’s caseload is down to two or three schools each, but this is a good first step.

The addition of counselors is a “huge step in the right direction,” said Jennifer Jones, a counselor at Highland View Elementary and chairwoman of the school system’s elementary counselor leadership team.

About 14 elementary schools have only a half-counselor position. Under the new proposal, four of those schools are back to having a full-time counselor, Jones said.

“We were hoping for more, but anything is better than nothing,” Jones said.

Israel said he was pleased to see the extra funding for Curriculum 2.0. Starr’s original request had already included $1.55 million for added curriculum supports.

The teacher’s union felt that more should be included and worked with the school system over the last few weeks to determine what additional supports were needed for next year, he said.

The extra funding will allow for more training for all elementary teachers this summer, a curriculum summit this summer for teachers to help “fix holes” in the curriculum, and more money for substitutes so teachers can take planning time, Israel said.