More than 380 teaching, staff positions to be cut; Chromebook initiative stalled
Interim Superintendent Larry A. Bowers is recommending that Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) eliminate hundreds of positions, delay further implementation of a districtwide technology initiative, and make several other reductions to close a $53 million budget shortfall for next school year.
The Montgomery County Board of Education will consider the recommendations at a meeting on Tuesday, June 16, when the Board is scheduled to approve a final Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Operating Budget.
“There are no easy answers when you have to make a budget cut of this size, especially in an organization like MCPS, where 90 percent of your budget goes toward paying for the people who do the important work every day,” Mr. Bowers said. “We have made reductions in a strategic way that maximizes funding for classroom instruction, but with the magnitude of the cuts, every school in our district will be impacted.”
Mr. Bowers’ recommendations were developed in collaboration with the leadership of the district’s three employee associations, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500, and the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals (MCAAP).
“I am grateful for the collaboration of our employee associations, who continue to be at the table when difficult decisions have to be made,” Mr. Bowers said. “They are strong advocates for our students and our staff, while recognizing the need for flexibility and partnership during difficult financial times.”
On May 21, the Montgomery County Council approved a $2.32 billion FY 2016 Operating Budget for MCPS. The Council’s budget is more than $53 million lower than the Board of Education requested and is funded at the minimum level required by state law, called Maintenance of Effort (MOE). MCPS had begun preparing for the possibility of budget reductions, but the need for deeper cuts was solidified when Governor Larry Hogan, Jr., decided not to fully fund public education next year.
In February, the Board of Education made $10.3 million in budget reductions in anticipation of lower-than-expected funding from the state of Maryland. In March, Mr. Bowers announced that MCPS was eliminating more than 40 central office positions in addition to those positions that were already cut as part of the Board’s budget request. He also announced that he was holding back 370 school-based positions, many of them teaching and support positions that directly serve students.
These reductions will cause some class size increases across the district, but will have a lesser impact on schools that serve a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Some money in the budget will be realigned to restore more than 30 school-based positions that serve students who receive special education or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) services. The elimination of these central office and school-based positions will save about $25.5 million, not quite half of what is needed to close the budget shortfall.
This school year, MCPS launched a very ambitious and successful technology initiative that placed devices—mainly Chromebook laptops—in all Grade 3, 5, and 6 classrooms as well as high school social studies classes. The plan for the 2015-2016 school year was to purchase more devices for Grades 2, 4 and 7, and one other high school subject.
However, given the budget concerns, the district will not purchase any additional Chromebooks with operating budget funds in FY 2016, saving $3 million. If funding can be found in the Capital Budget, it is possible that a small number of additional devices could be purchased, but it will not be enough to support full implementation of the initiative.
MCPS employees will receive compensation increases that were agreed to in their contracts. However, implementation of these increases will be delayed by one pay period, from October 3, 2015, to October 17, 2015, saving more than $3 million in FY 2016. The MCPS employee associations are in the process of ratifying this change to the contracts.
Under the three-year contracts approved in March 2014, MCPS employees are scheduled to receive a 2 percent cost of living increase next school year, and eligible employees will move up a step on the salary scale. These modest increases come as the district is requiring employees to pay a greater share of their health insurance premiums.
“Our employees do outstanding work and have certainly earned a compensation increase,” Mr. Bowers said. “I am pleased we can honor this commitment to our staff while finding a way to save some money in the budget. I appreciate the flexibility of our employees and their commitment to our students and our system.”
The superintendent’s original Operating Budget recommendation included more than $8.2 million in strategic investments aimed at enhancing efforts to narrow the achievement gap and prepare students for the 21st century. The Board’s budget request eliminated $5.7 million of that amount, and Mr. Bowers is recommending cutting it by another $1.2 million. This will leave only $1.3 million in enhancements.
Mr. Bowers also is recommending cuts to the budgets for professional development, textbooks, and other important programs and initiatives.
Concerns about the Future
Mr. Bowers said he expects the MCPS FY 2017 Operating Budget to be even more challenging. The FY 2016 budget was partially funded by one-time revenue sources that may not be available next year, including $33 million in budget savings realized through hiring and expenditure restrictions put in place last November. For FY 2017, Mr. Bowers expects the MCPS Operating Budget to increase by nearly 5 percent due to enrollment growth of more than 2,000 students, inflationary increases, some modest enhancements, and increased salary and benefit costs.
“I am hopeful that we will be able to work with the county executive and County Council to find a way to increase revenue next year and beyond so we can keep up with our growth and invest in strategic areas that will benefit our students,” Mr. Bowers said. “A minimum MOE budget is not going to be sufficient in the future.”
While MOE requires the same level of local funding per student from one year to the next, it does not provide for the same level of services, let alone allow for modest enhancements. It does not account for increasing costs, inflation, pay increases for employees, or the fact that more students are coming to MCPS needing services and support to ensure their success.
FY 2016 is the seventh consecutive year that the Montgomery County Council has funded MCPS at or below the minimum funding level of MOE. In that time, MCPS has had to eliminate more than 1,800 positions.
“Going forward, a MOE budget really means a $50 million reduction every year,” Mr. Bowers said. “I do not believe we can cut any more positions without impacting our ability to prepare our students to thrive in their futures.”