Montgomery County Taxpayers League

The Voice of Taxpayers of Montgomery County, Maryland

Public Schools

Questions for the meeting of December 14, 2016

Topic: “The FY 2018 Proposed Budget for the Montgomery County Public Schools

Speaker:   Dr. Jack Smith, Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools

Dec. 14, 2016 — Free and open to the public — 6-7:30 pm. —  Rockville Public Library

  The following questions have been sent to Dr. Smith in advance of the meeting

1.  What are the costs related to the top three academic strategies – Achievement Gap, 21st Century Education and Special Education for FY 2018.  What percentage of increased spending is for these 3 strategies? 

2.  Data from prior superintendents and reports by the Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) show that MCPS has expended an additional $2,000 per student annually in “targeted” elementary schools to reduce class size and provide supports to low-income learners.  However the achievement gap by student race, ethnicity and income continues to persist and has widened on several measures of college readiness, such as SAT and ACT performance.   How many schools did not meet district-wide performance targets?  Have you set improvement goals for these schools for FY 2018?  As you have highlighted narrowing the achievement gap as a major goal, would you consider sponsoring an independent review by outside specialists of gap closing strategies to determine which approaches are cost-effective – with a report to the public?

3.  Will you consider charter schools as a means of closing the achievement gap?  A review of Baltimore schools in Freddy Gray’s Sandtown neighborhood showed a charter school (Empowerment Academy) not only out-performed his public school (New Song), but out-performed two elementary (Greencastle and Strathmore) and two middle schools with high FARMS rates in Montgomery County – Benjamin Bannecker and Argyle. (see 5/18/15 study posted on MCTL web site).

4.  Will you use Department of Education standards to decide if there is reasonable evidence to deploy a program countywide.  For instance have the Choice Program and the Middle School Magnet Consortium met their performance goals?  If yes, will they be expanded? Will you reprogram funds if goals for these and other programs are are not reached? 

5.  Are performance target improvements planned for special education students in FY 2018 separate from the at risk population at large? How do the marginal costs to achieve these improvements compare to the marginal costs for at risk students in the general student population for the same measures?

6.   Given that the mandated Maintenance of Effort law may not be able to cover both the program needs of our school children and the salaries and benefits of staff which account for 90 percent of the MCPS budget, will you rein in labor contracts so that teacher’s salaries and benefits match more reasonably with their counterparts in Howard and Fairfax counties?

7.  How does your FY 2018 budget manage non-instruction overhead ?  Have you considered benchmarking this against other school systems?  For example, the overhead rate at large school districts in California average 32%.  For MCPS it was 45%  in FY 2017.  Lowering this overhead could result in the hiring of thousands more teachers to lower class size and narrow the achievement gap.  Will you use the expertise of the business community to advise on administrative costs?  Will you consider consolidating administrative functions with those of the Montgomery County government.

8.   Language immersion programs are very popular and wildly over-subscribed.  To open the program to a larger school audience, have you considered innovative solutions such as partnering with universities that provide video classroom learning in a wide range of languages.   

Questions for the of meeting of November 16, 2016

Free and open to the public

Topic: “What Factors will Shape the FY 2018 County Budget?”

Speaker: Steve Farber, Council Administrator, Montgomery County Council

Questions sent to the speakers in advance of the MCTL meeting of November 16, 2016

1.  Will the results of the national elections affect the projections for FY 2018 revenue and spending for Montgomery County?

2.  What do you project to be the revenue source mix for FY 2018 among property taxes, income taxes, grants and contract, fees and other?  Are there policy options in place for increasing the less volatile property tax share?  Is it likely that there will be another Charter busting property tax increase?   How could other revenue sources be boosted to match Fairfax County’s approach?

3.  Given that the Wayne case decision has been incorporated into the projections for FY 2018, will ITOC credit refunds, faster reassessments for property improvements, and collections of overpayments made to municipalities affect the revenue picture positively?  By how much?

4.  Other than spending increases that are likely to exceed the CPI such as negotiated salaries and benefits for MCPS and county employees, and debt service, what other spending increases are likely?

5.  With the FY 2017 funding of MCPS of $90 million over the Maintenance of Effort requirement, by how much will this increase the baseline of per pupil costs for FY 2018?  Given MCPS cost projections for FY 2018, is it likely that funding for MCPS will exceed the MoE limit once again?

6.  What are some of the bills passed at the last legislative session in Annapolis that will affect the Montgomery County budget in FY 2018 –  both positively and adversely?

 

“Is Maryland building ‘Cadillacs or Buicks’ for its new public schools?”

From the Maryland Reporter website of July 7, 2016:

“In a heated discussion with the head of the [state] school construction program, Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot aired serious concerns about the state’s spending on public school projects at Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting.  “We can’t just keep shoveling more and more money without accountability,” Hogan said.  “The taxpayers are getting pretty frustrated with the results.”

“Biggest tax hike since 2009 is now official in Montgomery County”

From the Washington Post of May 26, 2016:

“The Montgomery County Council gave final approval Thursday to a $5.3 billion budget that includes the biggest property-tax hike in seven years, trims pay raises the county had promised to unionized workers and pours record funding into the school system….The budget, which takes effect July 1, includes a nearly 9 percent property-tax increase that will add $326 to the average residential tax bill. It is also supported by a rise in recordation taxes that will add $455, for example, to the cost of buying or selling a $500,000 home.”

Feel free to comment below.

“Montgomery County homeowners face biggest tax hike in seven years”

From the Washington Post of May 19, 2016:

“The Montgomery County Council, citing the unmet needs of a school system facing explosive enrollment growth and a widening academic achievement gap, voted Thursday to raise the average residential property tax bill by 8.7 percent — the largest increase in seven years.

The tax hike required a unanimous 9-0 vote because it exceeds the charter limit on tax revenue the county can collect each year. That revenue will help underwrite a $5.2 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, with about half of the money resulting from the tax increase going to Montgomery County Public Schools.

The council set the property tax rate at $1.02 per $100 of assessed value, 3.9 cents above last year’s rate. With rising assessments, it means that the average annual residential property tax bill will rise $326, to $4,075.”

Feel free to leave your comment below.

 

“County Council Votes to Cut Pay Increases, Reduce Class Sizes”

From the Bethesda Beat May 16, 2016:

“The council then pledged unanimous support of a $2.45 billion schools operating budget that is nearly $90 million more than the minimum required by state law…Council members made clear the spending approved Monday is dependent on the council’s approval of a 6.4 percent property tax increase and an increase of the county’s tax on home sales,…“We are about to do three things that some of us said we would not do again,” council member Roger Berliner said, referring to the proposed property tax increase above the county’s charter limit and home sales recordation tax increase as well as funding the school system over the minimum required by the state’s maintenance of effort law.”

Message by MCTL President Opposing Tax Increase

MCTL President Joan Fidler sent the following email April 25, 2016, to Nancy Floreen, President of the County Council, asking the Council to vote against any tax increase:

MCTL Member Testifies in Opposition to FY2017 Budget

MCTL member Richard Fidler testified April 7, 2016, before the County Council in opposition to the proposed FY2017 budget: 

Testimony on Proposed FY 2017 Budget for Montgomery County

April 7, 2016 – Richard Fidler

I am Richard Fidler, and although I play second fiddle to the president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League, I am here as a taxpaying citizen. I come not to praise the proposed tax increase but to bury it.

The proposed budget is more than $5 billion, of which about half goes to Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). The state requires all counties to fund the schools at the Maintenance of Effort level—no more, no less. So why are we adding another $83 million beyond the legal requirement?

What disturbs me about MCPS is the lack of accountability.

When the MCPS budget is created look who is at the table for the decisions. It’s the administrators themselves. Also around the table are representatives of the unions and the PTA. More importantly, look who is NOT at this big dance: The County Executive, who has very limited authority over the MCPS budget: He says he has approved about 99% of what they asked for. Also not at the table: You, the County Council, which by law must fund the schools budget and then figure out how to fund the request. Also not at the table: The School Board itself, amazingly—until they receive the budget as a fait accompli from the negotiators. Finally, also who is not at the table is the most important group of all: The taxpayers, who have to actually pay the piper but are not allowed to call the tune..

So what we have on the one side is the budget being formulated by a group of unelected negotiators with a strong vested interest in increasing the budget, and on the other side our elected officials who have to finance a budget they had no say in creating. And we the public peer at this Danse Macabre and wonder who choreographed it.

It is this fantasyland process which causes me to be extremely skeptical when the Superintendent of Schools says they have “cut to the bone”. What proof does the public have that in fact that is true?

But perhaps there is hope. When the Board of Education recently passed the budget it also passed a measure to move the audit function of MCPS to the Board itself. This is a step in the right direction, a recognition that MCPS actions have taxpayer reactions.

I will close by asking you not to give the Montgomery County Public Schools any more than they are legally entitled to until they agree to a complete performance audit. It is then that we will know whether the tens of billions given to the school system has produced the results for which they were intended.

Thank you.

MCTL Vice-President Testifies in Opposition to FY2017 Budget

MCTL Vice-President Gordie Brenne testified April 6, 2016, before the County Council in opposition to the proposed FY2017 budget: 

Testimony on Proposed FY 2017 Budget for Montgomery County

April 6, 2016

In the years leading up to the 2008 economic collapse, bankers, Wall Street, and mortgage originators got too greedy and were subsequently found guilty of fraud after the banks were bailed out.  Where were the regulators when this was happening?  Today, our county government is playing fast and easy with the people’s money, and the Executive has asked for a 9% property tax increase to bailout excessive payroll increases.  You, the Council are the regulators and we’re looking to you to reverse compensation contract mistakes made by MCPS and Executive management which imperil our kid’s education and bloat our payrolls.

MCPS is a snake eating its tail with solutions that fail our kids.  Payroll costs have gone up 37% over the last ten years (OLO Report, 2/23/16), in spite of the recession.  This is largely because annual step increases that will cost $55M next year, drive teachers average salaries over 12% above their peers in Fairfax and Howard counties (WABE FY2016 Guide), and force planned hiring cuts to pay for them.  When we spend more on existing teachers and overhead, there’s less money to hire new teachers.  It’s that simple.

Incredibly, there’s another step increase in this budget request, accounting for over half the increase above Maintenance of Effort (MoE), and overhead takes another 45 cents of every dollar (MCTL Study).  The problem with one-size-fits-all solutions is that more expensive teachers in west county mean fewer new teachers in east county, larger class sizes, more reliance on para-educators to tackle the achievement gap and a widening gap. Ironically, teachers on the front line for closing the gap are paid on average 6% less than teachers in our wealthier west county schools (OLO Report, 9/22/15) .

Board members will tell you that in hindsight, last year’s step increase contributed to growing student teacher ratios, yet they seem powerless to do anything about it (OLO Report 2/23/16, pg 14).  But you’re not powerless.  Ask yourself if your arguments over the last 8 years against spending above the MoE level are still valid; and, if not why not?  Our parents aren’t stupid.  Explain the value proposition to east county parents who make less than teachers and have only 10% of their kids graduate college-ready (4/14 OLO report).  Say no to more across the board pay raises.  If you can’t do that, at least tie any spending increases to a requirement that MCPS sponsor an independent review of its gap-closing plans and costs.

General county government doesn’t look any better.  Over three years (FY14-16), public safety employees have seen a 30% boost in pay, and other county employees have received 20% increases (Farber, 11/13/15 memo to Council).  (After the third round of pay raises last year the Executive was forced to implement unprecedented spending cuts to the FY’16 budget just approved.  Unfortunately, the cuts were to non-recurring expense items, postponing cuts needed to balance the FY’17 budget.  He then promised to cut spending by 2% in the FY’17 budget request, but failed to deliver, even though the Budget Director and Chief Administrative Officer reiterated this approach in the 12/8/15 Council meeting).

Where are the productivity increases to justify labor costs growing faster than inflation?  Our county’s health, transportation, and public safety haven’t seen dramatic improvements to justify big pay raises, while our safety net struggles to keep up with immigrant population growth, and our tax base hasn’t grown significantly.)

Lastly, budget request revenue projections could again prove to be too high (projections assume increases in the rate of personal income growth, 4.5% vs. 3.5% last year, that drives income tax revenues, and property tax revenues are projected to increase 10%- table pg. 3-8).  Recently projected budget shortfalls (December 2015, Dept of Finance, $179M) were largely due to overly rosy revenue projections last June, not the Wynne Case (those shortfalls were already in the June 2015 projection).  This could happen again. Scale back overly generous salary increases that keep bloating our enormous budget base and risk new budget deficits.  Be regulators, not enablers.