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Montgomery County schools find extra money for next year's budget

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Local,Maryland,Education,Kate Jacobson,Montgomery County

The Montgomery County school system has found an extra $22 million in funding from Maryland and less-than-expected health care costs, prompting Superintendent Joshua Starr to reduce his budget request to the county.

Starr has shrunk his $2.2 billion request by $6.2 million, which is still $3.8 million more than the amount the county government must give the schools under Maryland law.

He plans to use the newfound money for employee raises and to hire more staff, including school psychologists and counselors.

Starr told the school board that the state is providing $17.05 million to the public school system, about $7 million more than he had projected.

Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Dana Tofig said the superintendent often underestimates the state's funding for the schools because he has to draft his budget in December, before the governor releases his proposal. Starr didn't anticipate getting so much aid from Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget, which was released last month.

"There's just a lot of stuff that we don't know, and we kind of have to wait and see what the trends are ... that we're seeing, so we can make an informed estimate of savings," Tofig said.

Tofig said the county is asking for only 0.2 percent more than what is mandated by state law. The $10 million that Starr originally asked for was about 0.5 percent above the state's "maintenance of effort" rule, which requires school districts to spend at least the same amount per pupil each year.

"We hope that [the County Council and County Executive Ike Leggett] see that there's been an effort to get to [maintenance of effort]," Tofig said.

Councilman Phil Andrews, D-Gaithersburg/Rockville, said going over the required amount at all is too much, and even though Starr reduced his original amount, the council would be irresponsible to approve anything above the minimum.

"I don't think the council should go a penny over maintenance of effort," he said.

This isn't the first time MCPS has found a surplus: Last year, school employees got a 3.4 percent raise after the school board found $27 million in extra money.

The school board and the three labor unions that represent MCPS employees are negotiating a new contract, but Starr has included a $12.4 million placeholder in his budget for employee compensation.

When drafting his revised budget, Starr said he considered community input. He said community members and staff called for creating more opportunities for teachers to become educated with new curriculum, and hiring additional staff, including school counselors and psychologists. He is putting $2 million for the extra staff and extra training for Curriculum 2.0, which introduced new teaching methods and curriculum for students, specifically those in elementary school.

kjacobson@washingtonexaminer.com

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