Members of the Montgomery County Council on Wednesday criticized the county school board's decision to spend a budget surplus on employee compensation rather than shrinking classroom size.
"The decision last year to use the surplus in their health insurance account to avoid ... an increase in the employee share of health insurance premiums ... that's a choice that I would highlight as an example where they could have reduced class size but instead they chose to keep their employee benefits better than other employees'," said Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large.
Montgomery County Public Schools expects to have $32.3 million in unspent funds at the end of the current fiscal year, about $12 million of which is being carried over from fiscal 2011, County Council documents show. After $17 million of the surplus is used in the fiscal 2013 budget, the school system anticipates a $15.3 million surplus.
At the same time, the school system saved about $16 million by increasing classrooms by an average of one student apiece. The same amount of money could have been saved by giving teachers and other staff an average of 2.2 furlough days.
County lawmakers questioned whether decreasing classroom size in the coming year is the right choice. Class sizes vary depending on grade and type of class, but several council members cited reports of classrooms of 40 students or more.
"[A classroom of] 22 gets a different outcome than 30, 35 or 40," said Councilman Marc Elrich, D-at large and a former teacher.
Superintendent Joshua Starr said he was not aware of any classrooms that large. Classroom size wasn't on the top of the school board's list of priorities, he said.
"It's legit in terms of a teacher saying, 'I've got this concern for my class or other classes in my building,' but that doesn't translate into necessarily a systemwide issue," said school board Vice President Christopher Barclay.
Pay raises, by contrast, are a priority. Next fiscal year, school employees are expected to get raises, making them the only county employees to get raises to their base pay, which contributes to pension costs. MCPS employee pay and benefits are estimated to cost an additional $15.1 million.