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Dec. 17, 2009

Weast proposes budget

by Jenny Sholar, Managing Features Editor
Superintendent Jerry Weast proposed a $2.2 billion preliminary operating budget for fiscal year 2011 (FY 2011) at a Board of Education meeting last week. Weast’s goal in preparing the budget was to keep expenditures as low as possible without compromising quality of education, reflecting limited resources as a result of the recession, according to Chris Barclay, vice president of the Board.

The FY 2011 budget, which contains no new initiatives, shows a one percent increase (roughly $25 million) over FY 2010’s budget. The increase is the minimum amount necessary to account for a predicted two percent overall enrollment growth of about 2,500 students, according to Barclay. Increased costs also come from growth in populations requiring extra funding, namely a six percent increase in ESOL students and a 10 percent increase in students receiving free and reduced meals, according to Weast.

Before being finalized, the budget will undergo review and revision under the Board, which will vote on it on Feb. 9 and submit it to the Montgomery County Council in March, according to Marshall Spatz, director of the Department of Management, Budget and Planning of MCPS. The Council is scheduled to approve its version of the budget in May, and the Board will take its final action on the budget in June.

Though Weast said he is hopeful his proposal will receive full funding from the county, he said he is prepared for the possibility of budget reductions. His proposed budget has room for $40 million in possible cuts, although such cuts would cause difficulties across the county, including raising class sizes, reducing the number of teachers in specialized programs, and reducing transportation for students attending optional programs outside of their own school districts, such as magnets and consortia.

At a press conference Dec. 9, Weast emphasized college readiness and quality of education as one of his priorities while preparing the budget, citing his Seven Keys to College Readiness campaign as proof of the county’s dedication to prepare all students for higher education.

Weast said he and the Board were forced to keep increases at a minimum since they had few options given the current economic situation. Among the challenges Weast faced in preparing his recommendations for the FY 2011 budget was an error in the state’s accounting last year that led to a loss of $24 million at the county’s expense.

The Board also encountered difficulty in reaching maintenance of effort, a state regulation requiring school districts to spend the same amount per student from year to year, since last year’s budget included one-time revenue. Finding money to fill in these holes will be difficult, Weast said.

The county faces another challenge in a potential fine of $24 to $45 million for failing to meet maintenance of effort in FY 2010. Including funds for this fine put additional strain on this year’s budget, said Spatz. The budget for FY 2011 is the minimum amount necessary to meet maintenance of effort, according to Barclay.

Although the amount spent per student will actually decrease by about $100, the budget still complies with maintenance of effort because the county is paying the same amount, whereas state and federal funding is decreasing.

Since Montgomery County has already made sweeping cuts in the budget in recent years, the process of choosing which programs to slash was not as extensive this year, according to Spatz. Over the past two years, the county has made about $200 million in cuts, including $90 million in cost of living adjustments for teachers.

Although the teacher’s union had negotiated for salary increases, they willingly gave the adjustments up to make room for other items in the budget. Other recent cuts include reductions in central office size and a $30 million hiring freeze, according to Weast.

At the press conference, Board President Patricia O’Neill encouraged citizens to review the budget and give input to the Board. According to O’Neill, phone lines will be open on Wednesday, Dec. 23, for citizens to sign up to testify at public hearings, which will be held Jan. 13 and 20. Community involvement is a part of the entire budget process, said Spatz.

To review the budget online go to http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/budget

Editor's note: The story has been edited for increased clarity since print publication.



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