- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Montgomery County officials are poised to balance their budget in an unusual way — by cutting funding to schools.

The County Council is expected Thursday to formally adopt a $4.4-billion budget that includes $45 million less in funding for county public schools than was requested by County Executive Isiah Leggett, whose proposal kept school spending consistent with last year’s levels.

The cuts violate a state law that bars decreases in per-student funding and could cost the county an additional $23 million in state funding next year. Nonetheless, council members said Tuesday they could not balance the budget and close a $300 million shortfall without cutting education, which makes up nearly half the county’s operating budget.

“We got more savings by making sure [cuts] went across the entire county,” said council President Valerie Ervin, a Democrat.

The county’s total budget is 2.2 percent larger than last year’s but 4.5 percent smaller than two years ago. It includes an increase in county property taxes from 90.4 cents per $100 of assessed property value to 94.6 cents.

School funds are often considered all but untouchable in county budgets, not only because of the emphasis on education but also because of the state’s so-called “maintenance of effort” law, which requires that counties match or exceed their previous year’s per-student funding.

The county’s $2.1 billion school budget will receive $1.4 billion of its funding from the county — $127 million less than the maintenance-of-effort requirement after factoring in a projected increase in student enrollment. Ms. Ervin said the cuts will enable the county to spend more on police, libraries and other public services.

Overall, the school system’s budget will decrease by just $18 million, or less than 1 percent, because of an increase in state funding. County officials have said the cut will be aimed largely at employee benefits and is unlikely to affect students or classroom instruction.

“The cut to the school system was very small relative to all the cuts in other county agencies,” Ms. Ervin said, adding that the county has exceeded maintenance-of-effort expenditures by about $600 million over the past 10 years.

Counties that violate the maintenance-of-effort requirement are subject to a penalty from the state but can request a waiver. If approved, the waiver allows the state to provide additional funding or potentially force the county to do so.

The Montgomery council and Mr. Leggett, a Democrat, declined to seek a waiver — largely over concerns about being forced to increase funding — opening the county to a possible $23 million reduction in state education funding next year.

The county Board of Education has resisted the cuts, which members say will affect students and personnel. The school system is expected to add 3,400 students next year and, while officials have said they are unlikely to increase class sizes, it is not known whether they might have to cut programs or lay off support personnel.

“There’s no way that we can take a budget cut like we’ve taken … and not have it affect the classroom,” said county schools spokesman Dana Tofig. “Now that we have a general idea of what our budget will be, we can go determine what we have to do.”

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