Montgomery County lawmakers said Monday they are wary of giving the public school system any more money than the minimum required under state law.
Council members said the county's financial situation is too risky to fund the schools above the "maintenance of effort" law, which requires local governments to maintain or increase their per-pupil funding of the schools every year.
To keep up with enrollment projections, the county would have to increase its funding to the schools by $23.5 million in fiscal 2014. But if the county chooses to go above the minimum level, they couldn't dip back below that new floor -- and no one's sure how full or thin the county's pocketbook is going to be a few years down the road. More than half of the county's budget, or $2 billion, goes to the schools.
"I think it would be extremely risky to go above [maintenance of effort] as long as the state law stays as is," Councilman Phil Andrews, D-Gaithersburg/Rockville, a member of the Education Committee, said during a hearing.
Jennifer Hughes, director of the county's Office of Management and Budget, said she probably would not advise County Executive Ike Leggett to spend more than the state's minimum on the schools in fiscal 2014.
"Given what we currently know I think it would be difficult to do that," she said.
When the recession hit -- and Montgomery's public school population boomed to the tune of 2,000 extra students a year -- the county bucked the state law, once receiving a waiver from the state and, more recently, accepting penalties in the form of less state funding.
But the law was given teeth during the last General Assembly session. If Montgomery County doesn't meet the funding floor, the state will take the county's income tax revenue and redirect it to the schools.
"You all played a role with the delegation to make that [changed law] happen. Am I lying about that?" Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, D-Silver Spring and chairwoman of the Education Committee, asked school board members.
"I wouldn't characterize what you're saying as lying, but ..." replied School Board Vice President Christopher Barclay.
The amended law does provide more avenues for seeking waivers from the funding formula, but the council and school board disagree over whether these waivers are truly options. Most paths require state approval, which Montgomery received in fiscal 2011, but, "They said don't come back," Ervin said.
One route cuts out the state, allowing the county to fund below state law if it reaches an agreement with the school board and its teachers union. Councilman Hans Riemer, D-at large, said he was skeptical the schools would cooperate when they knew they could get the money through the county's income tax revenue.
But School Board President Shirley Brandman emphasized a willingness to collaborate. "We are members of the community beyond the schools, too," she said.