Montgomery County Taxpayers League

The Voice of Taxpayers of Montgomery County, Maryland

December 12, 2013 – Larry Bowers

 Questions sent to Larry Bowers

 in advance of the meeting of December 12, 2013, and his responses:

 Questions sent to Larry Bowers, Chief Operating Officer, Montgomery County Public Schools, in advance of the meeting of December 12, 2013, and his responses given at the meeting:

 In the last 6 years the student population of MCPS has grown by 14,000, the equivalent of a new high school every year. It is expected that the student population will grow by another 60,000 students over the next 30 years. Consequently, MCPS needs an increase in its capital budget MCPS would like a bond authorization in the area of $600-750 million. Planned improvements for all schools include replacement of roofs, lighting, doors, heating and air conditioning.

 The MCPS operating budget, released December 12, has been increased by 2.5% over the previous one. Much of the per-pupil cost is driven by special education, partly because these students are served from birth to age 21. This group has been growing rapidly.

MCPS does not pay for the police officers who are stationed at various schools because they report to the county government.

When the MCPS budget is being developed, those providing direct input are the unions, the PTA, the Superintendent, the Deputy Superintendent and representatives from the MCPS budget office. This array of representatives is not determined by law but by tradition.

The recently released budget is a “management budget”. The operating budget will be revised and issued later. The proposed FY15 operating budget is available online at http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/budget/FY2015/superintendent/ which has links to a two-page “Schools at a Glance”, a 73-page “Operating Budget in Brief” summary and the full budget as well as several other specialized presentations.

 In the likelihood that school opening times will be adjusted to give high schools students more sleep, it will cost an extra $10 million. This proposal, which includes extending the elementary school day by 30 minutes, will be presented to the Board of Education in June. One problem is that parking lots for buses are full, meaning that the fleet of buses cannot be increased. School bus routes are divided into high school, middle school, first-tier elementary and second-tier elementary. Half of the school bus fleet is devoted to special education students.

 1. The Montgomery County Government is developing a financial transparency module for the public which would gain much from the inclusion of MCPS data.  Are there any plans to display MCPS financial data on the MCG’s module?  If not, are you developing a similar module for the MCPS?  Other than funding reasons, what would be some of the reasons dictating against the development of such a module for the MCPS?

 MCPS is looking at what the county is doing but “Open Data” is just beginning. MCPS does have an online database of expenditures by contract. Mr. Bowers is in favor of accountability but not necessarily by an auditor or an Inspector General (IG). The County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight does some review of MCPS as does the county IG. The state does 3 audits of MCPS. But those audits look only at adherence to state regulations, not at efficiency. Mr. Bowers would be in favor of adding more internal auditors. MCPS auditors do not report to the Board of Education but to the Superintendent. The report of the state auditors can be acted upon by the Board. State auditors have no authority over the state’s school systems.

 2. The MCPS budget displays budget requests without disclosing related outcomes.  For example, closing the achievement  gap is a primary goal of the Board of Education (BoE) but the budget does not display annual reduction targets .How does the MCPS estimate costs for this strategy and perform analyses without these targets?

Has MCPS considered providing greater transparency in its budget by displaying spending by each major strategy? 

 The budget is not the place for showing outcomes. The new MCPS strategic planning process will include targeted outcomes. The strategic planning process will set targets for specific programs, which will be reflected in the budget.

 Much has been done to close the achievement gap—such as the training of ESOL teachers in methods for use in regular classrooms—but more needs to be done.

  3. MCPS has historically designated all schools in two categories – Red Zone and Green Zone. Using this designation (or its latest equivalent), does MCPS provide details, on a per school basis, to the BoE and County Council that would help them evaluate whether the Red/Green assignment has any bearing on resource allocation?  Is this information available to taxpayers? What are the rubrics and formula for assessing staff allocation and other instructional resources to schools?  Is there a trend analysis available to the public to evaluate the effect of historical differential resource allocations have on reducing the student performance gap?  Are student performance assessments (e.g. MSA, county wide exams, SATs, ACTs, APs) analyzed vis a vis school resource allocation to see what correlation exists between outlays per school and student performance? What potentially confounding factors  (socio-economic status, FARMS, absentee rate, suspension rate,  previous rate of academic progress, etc) are included in the analysis? Are red zone schools allocated more than green zone schools? How does an outside observer track this?

In a change in terminology, “red zone” schools are now designated a “focus schools”, of which there are 67. MCPS spends $3000 more per student at these schools than at other schools. The extra funding buys smaller classes and pre-kindergarten classes in many of them. Some of these schools will have their school day extended to 5 p.m.

MCPS has a goal to develop a structure which will heavily involve technology and integrate it into the curriculum. But it is difficult to design such a program now because the technology isn’t quite ready yet although it is coming together.

The Board is also looking at the question of fund-raising in schools. Some schools (“Green zone”) raise significant funds; others very little. But the extra funding in the green zone schools offsets the extra funding given to the focus schools. The Board does not monitor how much the PTA groups raise at each school. Nor has there been any objection by parents at green zone schools to the extra funding provided to the focus schools.

  4. Overhead and Marginal Costs- world class organizations target the sum of direct and indirect overhead costs at 10%.  Costs outside of the classroom are hard to determine from the budget presentation.  What is the MCPS definition for overhead costs?  What is the MCPS overhead rate and how could these costs be better disclosed in the budget presentation?  For example, according to the Washington Post, Fairfax county’s school board has asked for $25 million next year to pay for an expected enrollment increase in enrollment of 3,000 kids- that’s about $8,000 each.  MCPS wants almost double that, over $15,000 per student to pay for enrollment increases.  Do higher overhead costs account for the difference?

Overhead and administrative cost are 2% of the budget. Central services are 7% but exclude transportation. Health insurance is negotiated with the unions. $35 million could be saved if MCPS employees paid the same insurance premiums as do county government employees.

 5.The breakdown or details about facilities management are not easily apparent in the MCPS budget.  Such details would include figures for repair & maintenance of gyms, tracks and fields. Is there a school-by-school breakdown by actual expenditures?  More specifically, is there a full cost analysis available to taxpayers to support the decision by MCPS for the replacement of natural grass with artificial turf fields.  What are the full life cycle costs?  Are figures available for hours of use, for the annual costs of sanitizing, for tire crumb additions, for maintenance? 

Artificial turf costs about $1 million per field. Although natural turf is cheaper to install it is expensive to maintain. Maintenance of a field with artificial turf costs only $8000 yearly. No extra funds are spent on fields specifically; each school is given a set amount of funding in an athletic budget which includes field maintenance.

  6. In recent years there has been a large expansion in the use of part time para-educators to augment the full time staff.  How does MCPS determine if para-educators are considered a cost effective strategy for reducing the impact of staffing on classroom instructional resources? What factors support or contra-indicate the continued or more extensive use of para-educators?  Will the results of this staffing analysis be made available to taxpayers?

With para-educators—now numbering about 1500—all growth has been in special education with some students requiring one-on-one attention. There has been a noticeable growth in the number of autistic students.