Monday, December 14, 2009

Weast War

And so it has begun. MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast has fired the first shot in what may be his last and greatest battle: the fight over the Fiscal Year 2011 school budget. Pull up your chairs, folks, because you are about to see the master at work.

Weast’s opening salvo was a double-down special in the Post and the Gazette, plus an appearance on News Channel 8. He has drafted both an “as is,” or bare-bones, budget and a list of cuts if it is not funded. (The latter tactic reminds us of the state’s infamous “doomsday cuts” that were rolled out just before the 2007 special session.) Weast’s budget is based on the premise that the county will at least match the per-pupil local spending of FY 2010, which is the state “maintenance of effort” (MOE) requirement. On its face, it is entirely reasonable for the Superintendent to expect that the county will comply with state law.

Of course, the budget assumes that school system employees will be granted $25.9 million more in step increases, which are salary hikes for employees gaining seniority within their existing classifications. That virtually matches the overall budget increase of $25.2 million. But Weast has not negotiated new contracts with the school system’s three unions: the Supervisors, SEIU Local 500 and MCEA. There is no assurance that county employees in the rest of the government will get step increases or that the County Council will support them. So if Weast does not negotiate step increases, the budget will drop by $25.9 million with no direct impact on the classroom.

But there may be sanction from the state. MOE demands that the county must match its prior year’s per-pupil funding level to be eligible for state aid. No exception is made for reduced labor compensation, a point made by Council Member Marc Elrich on this blog. Council Member Valerie Ervin has labeled MOE a “crazy law” and some state legislators are discussing how to make it easier for the counties to get waivers and spend less. But that will not sit well with Weast, who says that any cut to his proposed budget will have “a devastating impact on the children.”

Nor will it be tolerated by MCEA, which is still the county’s undisputed 800-pound gorilla. MCEA has posted a lengthy analysis of MOE on its website, which contains this statement:

The MCEA Board of Directors has approved the following position statements on Maintenance of Effort:

MCEA supports legislative action to waive the soon-to-be-announced multi-million dollar “penalty” in loss of state education aid to Montgomery County for the 2009-2010.

MCEA supports legislative action to ensure that future “penalties” not be imposed on local school systems for actions taken by others (the county councils).

MCEA opposes any erosion of the – already minimalist – definition of Maintenance of Effort.
Additionally, MCEA President Doug Prouty’s appearance on News Channel 8 and MCEA Executive Director Tom Israel’s comments on this blog make plain that the union regards any weakening of the MOE law as injurious to education. In that position, they are in lockstep with Weast.

And so Weast is digging in his heels and unsheathing his many weapons to fight back. Just as he told the media, he will not settle for a dime less than what is guaranteed by MOE. He will probably not be doing the county any favors by taking the lead in labor negotiations, which is what he did a year ago. Why should he? Weast’s reward for making the county’s labor renegotiations with the non-school unions easier was the MOE debacle. On top of all this, Weast’s press release states that he is “repurposing the $79.5 million placed in the budget by the County Council in FY 2010 to pay for county debt service. Instead, that money will be used to meet rising costs.” In other words, all deals under discussion to cope with MOE last spring are off. Weast is not about to be double-crossed again.

It is very unwise to bet against Jerry Weast and the 800-pound gorilla except for one thing. Their enemy is not the County Council or the state government. Their enemy is an entity of nearly unlimited power and no remorse: the county’s moribund economy, which is now an exploding grenade spraying shrapnel in MANY directions. The horrible state and county budgets, the requirements of state law, the immense political pressure directed by Weast and the unions and the looming specter of the 2010 elections are all about to collide.

Which will be blown to smithereens first?