Weast presents 2007 operating budget

Jan. 26, 2006, midnight | By Isaac Arnsdorf | 15 years, 4 months ago

Superintendent's recommendation includes $75 million salaries and benefits increase

Superintendent of schools Jerry Weast unveiled his Recommended Operating Budget for the 2007 fiscal year on Dec. 14. The $1.8 billion budget exceeds last year's by $122 million, with a $75 million increase in salaries and benefits for MCPS employees.

The raise complies with the three-year contract negotiated in March 2004 between the school system and the teachers' union. In keeping with the agreement, teachers will receive a three percent raise starting this July and an additional one percent next January, according to the MCPS budget overview.

Staff compensation comprises 89 percent of the operating budget, which outlines expenditures for programs, services and activities. Spending on salaries and benefits has increased by $660 million, or 60 percent, since the 2000 fiscal year.

Over the same period, the average teacher salary has increased from $51,000 to $64,000. The proposed salary would be the highest in Maryland, according to the Citizens Budget, an executive summary of the superintendent's proposal published by the MCPS Department of Management, Budget and Planning.

The budget also includes graduated teacher salaries based on seniority and $17 million for healthcare and retirement benefits, according to Marshall Spatz, director of the MCPS Department of Management, Budget and Planning.

Higher teacher salaries are important to successful schools, Weast said in his speech. "We know that MCPS is only as good as the people who lead, teach, supervise and support [it]," he said. "If we're going to attract a high-caliber workforce, then we must offer competitive salaries and benefits."

This budget represents a landmark in that three union leaders collaborated closely with the superintendent and his staff to determine how best to meet student needs, said Bonnie Cullison, president of the teachers' union.

"No visibility and no say"

Others objected to the lack of community input on the magnitude and growth of spending on salaries and benefits. "Obviously, we want the best qualified teachers there are and we want them to make a living wage," said Cindy Kerr, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations. "But [negotiating] teacher salaries is an area that parents are never involved in."

Kerr said the public was ill-equipped to judge the salary increase's merit because all negotiations are conducted behind closed doors. "We've never had a place at that table," she said.

The contract is also typically settled after the budget has been submitted so as to bypass the public hearing process, according to MCPS education advocate Bob Astrove. "The public has no visibility and no say," he said.

The budget treats teacher salaries as a "fixed cost," Astrove said, when "in fact, labor is the most variable of all costs."

Cullison asserted the importance of private negotiations with the school board, expressing concern that the public might take the discussions out of context. "Only those people with an intimate knowledge of the day-to-day operations and the work we do can really understand the negotiations process," she said.

Improving student achievement

In total, the budget proposes a $15 million increase for initiatives to improve student achievement, such as the expansion of all-day kindergarten to 17 schools, the addition of 15 elementary-school principals, reducing high-school class sizes and expanding programs for gifted students.

The budget provides for supplemental translation equipment and four new staff members to increase both the speed of MCPS's document translation services and the number of languages offered.

The translation issue had been raised by the community and the school board prior the 2007 budget's release. Kerr hoped to see more attention paid to services at individual schools rather than those at the central office translation unit. "Parents need to be able to walk into a school and be able to talk to someone that speaks their language," she said.

Spending on violence prevention also increases under the budget, which includes $250,000 for collaboration with community organizations to develop in-school anti-violence programs.

The Citizens Budget promises MCPS will continue working with the Gang Prevention Task Force and the gang prevention coordinator to "ensure a safe and secure learning environment through ongoing security initiatives."

New schools and growth receive an $18 million increase in the budget proposal, with rising enrollment and five new schools set to open in the 2007 fiscal year.

In addition, the budget increases spending on utilities, transportation and inflation. To cover rising oil and natural gas prices, the budget factors in a $10 million increase for energy costs.

Budget cutbacks

The budget also contains $6 million in reductions, taken from lower-priority programs or from those that received surplus funding last year. Most of the cutbacks affect the central office rather than the classrooms.

The budget lists high-school and middle-school reform but does not specify what that means. Kerr expressed a desire for a more definitive explanation of how the money will be spent.

Spatz responded that spending accountability manifests itself in the form of student improvement.

Adult education has been eliminated from the budget and turned over to Montgomery College and the Department of Recreation. The same services will continue, and the program's $3.5 million funding will also be transferred, according to Spatz.

The budget's total $122 million increase is based on projected available revenue. Montgomery County pays for 74 percent of the budget, while 12 percent comes from state education aid and about four percent from federal grants, according to the Citizens Budget.

The Board of Education entertained public comment on the budget at hearings on Jan. 12 and 19. The Board is scheduled to act on the operating budget on Feb. 14, according to the MCPS web site.

The version adopted by the school board will be presented to the county executive and the County Council on March 1. The county executive will issue the county operating budget in April, which will encompass the school's budget.

The council is set to vote on May 18, and the school board will take final action on the operating budget on June 13, according to the timeline posted on the MCPS web site.

Isaac Arnsdorf. <span style='display: none;'>Isaac Arnsdorf is a perfectionistic grammar nerd with no sense of humor. According to co-editor Allie O'Hora, "he enjoys listening to rhythmless, atonal 'music' and reading the encyclopedia." He sleeps with the Manifesto under his pillow.</span> More »

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