Mary­land’s school fund­ing base­line: Right in prin­ci­ple, wrong in prac­tice

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - The writer, a Demo­crat, is pres­i­dent of the Mont­gomery County Coun­cil.

Mary­land of­fi­cials, fac­ing a $1.6 bil­lion state bud­get gap for the com­ing year, may try to cut sup­port for ed­u­ca­tion, mental health and other vi­tal ser­vices and shift the cost of teacher pen­sions to coun­ties. But we in­Mont­gomery and other coun­ties have se­vere bud­get prob­lems of our own. One com­mon-sense ac­tion the state could take to help us is to amend its “main­te­nance of ef­fort” law for school fund­ing.

Mary­land’s law re­quires coun­ties to main­tain their an­nual school fund­ing level, ad­justed for en­roll­ment changes, re­gard­less of fis­cal pres­sures or any other fac­tor. Fail­ure to com­ply means for­feit­ing any in­crease in state school aid. As chair of the Mont­gomery County Coun­cil’s Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee and a for­mer county school board mem­ber, I strongly sup­port the in­tent of the main­te­nance of ef­fort law. But in prac­tice, the law is in­flex­i­ble and il­log­i­cal as writ­ten.

To il­lus­trate, the law re­quires fund­ing for next year’sMont­gomery school bud­get that is $82 mil­lion, or 5.8 per­cent, higher than this year’s $1.4 bil­lion, even though we face a $300 mil­lion gap in our over­all bud­get. The law ig­nores the fact that over the last decade the county has funded our schools at $577 mil­lion above the main­te­nance of ef­fort re­quire­ment. It also as­sumes that le­git­i­mate bud­get sav­ings and pro­duc­tiv­ity im­prove­ments are im­pos­si­ble to achieve.

Even worse, the law rigidly main­tains school fund­ing at the ex­pense of other ser­vices that are equally vi­tal to our chil­dren. Mont­gomery’s bud­gets for po­lice, fire, safety net and other core county ser­vices are down for the first time in more than 40 years, some by more than 20 per­cent. The com­ing year prom­ises more of the same.

We care deeply about chil­dren not only when they are in school but also when they are not. Yet there is no state-man­dated main­te­nance of ef­fort fund­ing re­quire­ment for health and hu­man ser­vices, li­braries, pub­lic safety or trans­porta­tion. These and other ser­vices are also es­sen­tial to our 1 mil­lion res­i­dents, es­pe­cially our chil­dren.

In 2009, the State Board of Ed­u­ca­tion re­jected the county’s request for a waiver from the main­te­nance of ef­fort law. In 2010, the board grudg­ingly granted a waiver but made clear its dis­like of the request. Yet the county’s world-class school sys­tem, made pos­si­ble by our mas­sive fi­nan­cial com­mit­ment, is a huge con­trib­u­tor to Mary­land’s No. 1 rank­ing for ed­u­ca­tional per­for­mance. We should not be forced to go be­fore the state on bended knee.

The law should be amended, not abol­ished. It should give weight to such fac­tors as se­vere fis­cal pres­sures and a school sys­tem’s demon­strated per­for­mance lev­els. The fi­nan­cial penalty should be re­moved, and there should be an ap­peals process if a waiver request is de­nied. Our part­ners in An­napo­lis need to make this is­sue a top pri­or­ity so that we can work to­gether to pro­tec­tMont­gomery County’s fis­cal fu­ture.

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