Town hall meeting held at CHS focuses on budget

By By Joe Nolan, Staff Writer

 MCPS teachers and administrators met with Montgomery County government officials at the CHS Media Center Dec. 6 for a town hall meeting sponsored by the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) to express budget-related concerns.

 According to social studies teacher Joan Zuckerman, the Council’s actions directly affect not only her teaching career, but the rest of her life because her retirement pension is determined by the last three years of her teaching.

 “I’m retiring in two years,” Zuckerman said. “Since [no salaries are] being raised, my future pensions are completely stagnant. What concerns me is how the county council is deciding to spend money that should go to our pay raises.”

 Last May, the Montgomery County Council, which allocates funding for the county, responded to a tighter budget by not complying with the Maryland Maintenance of Effort (MOE) law.

 According to MCEA co-chair Barbara Hueter, MOE dictates that each year, every Maryland school district must spend at least the same amount of money per student as it did during the previous year. MOE was passed about 25 years ago with the purpose of ensuring that Maryland counties continue to improve their nationally-acclaimed public education systems.

 Although it received $80 million more in state funding for education this year than last year, the Montgomery County Council reduced MCPS funding by $45 million for the current school year, using the state aid designated for MCPS for other purposes, including transportation, thereby violating MOE.

 If a county fails to fulfill MOE, its public schools are penalized by being granted less state funding. According to fliers distributed by the MCEA at the town hall meeting, the state will give the Montgomery County Council $26.5 million less for education next year than planned because they did not meet the per-student spending requirement for MOE.

 According to MCEA vice president and Baker middle school teacher Chris Lloyd, the Council’s actions are unprecedented in Maryland, and the repercussions may be serious. Other counties are already following Montgomery County’s lead in simply ignoring MOE. In addition to a measurable decrease in the quality of Maryland education, ignorance of the law is likely to lead to county fiscal irresponsibility in other areas.

 “We all know that there are consequences to actions,” Lloyd said. “If I buy a car, I make the car payment. [The Council’s decision] is like me going to the car dealer and saying ‘Well you know what, I’d like you to make some of the payments because I crashed it, and I don’t want it anymore.’”

 With their jobs at stake and their salaries on the line, MCPS teachers are growing frustrated with the Council’s lack of fairness.

 “The state increased funding for Montgomery County by $80 million, and yet we didn’t see that entire amount,” social studies teacher Adam Field said. “We all wish, if nothing else, to hear the reason why the County Council acted the way they did – what’s their defense?”

 However, the biggest concern about the lack of funding is how it will affect the classroom.

“I think any time you’re spending less money per pupil, you’re going to see a negative impact on the instructional program,” Lloyd said. According to Montgomery County councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Potomac), from the Council’s point of view, disregarding MOE is the most prudent way to approach the tightening budget because the statute sets unrealistic goals.

“In a bad economy, the notion that we have to continue this upward spiral regardless of our past success is unsustainable,” Berliner said. “Everything else in our county has taken a whack. When a great recession hits, there has to be some flexibility.”

According to Maryland state delegate Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery County), whether the Council is justified in withholding funds from education for other purposes, MOE is currently defunct and must be rewritten. The county is ultimately responsible for education, and therefore, its laws must provide for the continued success of its schools.

“The goals of MOE are something we should support,” Feldman said at the town hall meeting. “The current system is flawed. It can be gamed and was gamed by local folk. There’s got to be a way to incentivize counties to meet and exceed MOE.”

According to Feldman, a law that successfully maintains the caliber of state education will be much more complicated than a simple funding requirement. Citing the fact that Montgomery County has often surpassed MOE by as much as five percent without receiving any credit, Feldman suggested that a new law should allow counties to draw on past success to bypass MOE in times of economic stress.

“[MOE] is not a good law; it’s a great concept,” Berliner said. “It just can’t be this rigid. It allows no aberration, no considerations for a great recession, no consideration for counties that have exceeded MOE or are experiencing rising enrollment.”