Miranda S Spivack and Daniel De Vise - Washington Post Staff Writers
Copyright The Washington Post Company May 14, 2007
After one of the most heated budget debates in recent memory, the Montgomery County Council is moving toward final approval of a $4 billion county spending plan that would deliver all but a small amount of the money sought by the school system.
Although proposed trims in Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's $2 billion request are not huge -- perhaps as little as $6 million - - the approach suggests that the county government might be taking a harder stand on school funding as state and local lawmakers confront looming deficits.
"I think, clearly, the public schools aren't going to get all the money that they anticipated receiving, and neither has any other county agency or department," said council member Valerie Ervin (D- Silver Spring), a former member of the school board.
The debate began in early March, when County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) unveiled his budget proposal. Leggett proposed a $117 million increase for schools, about $20 million less than Weast and the school board requested.
Leggett was hit by a barrage of criticism from Weast, school officials and the school system labor unions, whom Weast had promised 5 percent raises.
Leggett noted that his proposal included a 6.3 percent increase in school spending. But Weast argued that the total was less than the school system needed to cover union contracts and other commitments.
Ervin, a member of the council's education committee, said in the early spring that she hoped to ensure that Weast and the school system could get the $137 million increase they were seeking.
But as the weeks passed, a majority of the council, while not fully embracing Leggett's plans, decided that the school system should shoulder at least part of the fiscal pain.
Leggett predicted that the county, which faced a $200 million revenue gap when he took office this year, will confront a bleaker scenario next year. Estimates already suggest that the county will need to find $269 million next year to essentially maintain current spending, Leggett said. State officials, struggling with their own looming $1.5 billion deficit, have signaled that they will provide less school-construction money to counties next year.
"Next year is going to be a disaster," said Michael Knapp (D- Upcounty), who took over the chairmanship of the council's education committee this year and pledged to more carefully scrutinize the school system's budget than did his predecessor, Michael L. Subin (D- At Large).
County Council President Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) said the school system cannot be exempt from budget scrutiny. "Every . . . agency has identified extremely painful reductions," she said.
For weeks, Weast insisted that the council should not chip away at his proposed spending increase. But last week he told the school board that he had found $6.9 million in unspent funds and reiterated a willingness, expressed earlier in the spring, to trim another $6 million from his original proposal.
The council's education committee then added nearly $8 million by transferring school construction money to the operating budget, and with that, the $20 million gap for school system operating expenses suddenly was closed.The council will examine the committee's plan tomorrow...