MCPS budget blues: an opinion

Dec. 24, 2004, midnight | By Armin Rosen | 19 years, 3 months ago

The MCPS budget needs an overhaul

As a member of the Board of Education, former Blair PTSA President Valerie Ervin will take aim at the achievement gap, push for minority participation in GT classes and programs and advocate decreased class sizes. She will also confront an issue that lacks the visibility, but not the importance of GT enrollment and academic discrepancies: budget clarity.

"It's hard to follow the money,” said Ervin of the present MCPS budget. "And it's very difficult even at the County Council level to figure out where the money goes.”

She couldn't have said it better.

Instead of clarifying the specific amounts of money allocated for each school and program, MCPS disperses its funds through its various departments using funding guidelines provided in the MCPS budget document. Interested in knowing how much money Blair should (and supposedly does) receive in funds every year? Grab a calculator, prepare to do some multiplication, and follow the guidelines. Want to find out if there are any budget shortfalls that need taking care of? Can't help you there; no matter how you do the math, each school will have the exact amount of human resources needed to stay in business.

To better illustrate this asinine situation, allow me to direct you to three documents: the superintendent's proposed budget for fiscal year 2006, the staffing guidelines for this fiscal year, and, for reference's sake, the actual budget from 2004 prior to its amendment by the County Council. I challenge anyone not employed by MCPS to make sense of these documents, or, better still, to figure out exactly how much money Blair is set to receive this year using these documents. When you're done with that, choose another MCPS high school, duplicate the process, and compare your findings.

Those that accept this challenge are faced with a time consuming, and indeed futile task; the budget provides no guidelines for nonpersonnel funding, so the numbers you produce will merely serve as a rough estimate. And you won't find anything the least bit alarming. Intentional or not, the budget hides any and all improprieties behind a deluge of numbers and figures that only a true MCPS insider could really understand.

Thus, groups lobbying for fiscal change in MCPS are armed only with anecdotal evidence, since the hard facts (as they appear in the budget) are either impossible to make sense of, or will conveniently support the status quo. This is problematic when the status quo consists of potential underfunding or funding disparity, problems that have already been ascribed to the fledgling Downcounty Consortium academies programs, which, according to Kennedy PTSA Cluster Coordinator Lawrence Eiser, are (at Kennedy at least) "not even close” to receiving adequate funds. But with a budget that certainty doesn't have clarity in mind, funding shortfalls are almost impossible to statistically prove or even identify.

"You won't get the real numbers about how much it costs per school,” said Eiser. Obviously, it's a bit difficult for a group to credibly argue for change without the "real numbers.”

Joseph Zillo of the Blair PTSA echoed Eiser's concerns. "If you don't know where the money is located, there's no way for a group to know where money needs to go. We're dependent on MCPS and the Board of Education to give us what we need.”

But the county, the source of information upon which the PTSA is "dependent” is, apparently, not very dependable. In December of 2003, Blair PTSA President Fran Rothstein requested funding charts from the office of the superintendent; charts that could better explain exactly how much money Blair receives each year. That information has not yet been provided. Rothstein has never been given an explanation as to why, although she suspects that her request was lost in the MCPS bureaucracy.

Eiser considers the quest for budget data futile, and a bit naive. "Asking MCPS how it spends its money is like asking your parents how much money they make,” he said. "They don't like the question and one way or another are going to make sure you don't get an accurate answer.”

We, as the recipients of an MCPS education, deserve an accurate answer. With an apparently nonresponsive central administration and a budget from which only a public finance major (with loads of time on his or her hands) could glean anything meaningful, we sure aren't getting one.

Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »

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