Montgomery faces $71m budget gap as school spending grows

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Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye

The Montgomery County government is facing a $71 million hole in its fiscal 2014 budget, which some county lawmakers blame on a new state education funding law.

Imposing strict penalties on counties that do not maintain their levels of per-student funding, the law effectively requires Montgomery County to give the county school system $30 million more in fiscal 2014 than in fiscal 2013, which begins July 1, and to keep funding for Montgomery College at the same level.

As a result, funds available for other parts of the county -- like police, fire, libraries, and the Transportation and the Park and Planning departments -- are expected to drop by roughly $71 million, according to a report presented to the County Council's Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee on Monday.

The gap exists, though the county opted in May to keep most of an energy tax rate that is more than 140 percent above what it was three years ago and although other revenues, like income and property taxes, are expected to increase modestly.

"It is a sobering report," Council President Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda, said before the meeting. "It is going to be harder to maintain the services that our community expects."

The 5.2 percent cut for county government means returning to roughly the same amount of funds the county government has in the current fiscal year and reversing the increases county lawmakers put in place for fiscal 2013.

The report also reaffirmed for lawmakers how unlikely it is that they will be able to exceed mandatory funding levels for Montgomery County Public Schools in the foreseeable future.

The county will need to rethink its approach to funding the school system in the future, said Councilwoman Valerie Ervin. "[School board members are] going to have to marry the funding with actually producing the results."

Berliner repeated concerns that, as a result of the county's tightened purse strings, it was unwise for the school to offer employees two raises, one in July and another in May. The raises add about $65 million to the schools' costs in fiscal 2013 and 2014.

"[School officials] have to make decisions within that ceiling that balance the need for teachers to get competitive salaries and to address the classroom sets of issues like the number of kids in classes -- class size -- instructional aides, music, art and other things that have suffered," Berliner said.

But MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig defended the decision. "Investing in our employees is an investment in our students," he wrote.

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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Rachel Baye

Staff Writer - Education
The Washington Examiner