Tuesday, May 04, 2010

MCPS/Council Relationship Hits Bottom

Budget pressures and rumors of litigation have caused a considerable rift between the County Council and the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) system. It is possible that the relationship between the two institutions has never been this bad.

All MPW readers know about the county’s nearly $1 billion deficit. That deficit has caused the Executive to recommend double-digit cuts to many county agencies, cuts which have grown due to new revenue writedowns. Among the county’s problems is its inability to meet the state’s Maintenance of Effort (MOE) law, which requires counties to match per-pupil local school spending in succeeding years to be eligible for state aid increases. The state ruled last year that Montgomery’s accounting technique of charging $79.5 million to the school system in debt service violated MOE, but the county’s statehouse delegation was able to get the resulting fine waived. The county cannot meet MOE once again and is applying for another waiver valued at $58-139 million. (The amount varies depending on whether the $79.5 million debt service charge counts towards last year’s local contribution to the schools.)

The county’s budget problems are bad enough. But what has the schools really on edge is that many on the County Council would like to cut the schools’ budget even more. Some argue that the Executive’s budget proposal gives the school system almost everything it wants while other agencies are taking massive cuts. The fact that the Executive exempted the school system and public safety workers from furloughs is another bone of contention as some agree with MCGEO that the pain is unfairly concentrated on a minority of the county workforce. The council’s Management and Fiscal Policy Committee, consisting of Chair Duchy Trachtenberg and Council Members Valerie Ervin and Nancy Navarro, just unanimously voted to spread furloughs across all agencies, including the schools. The problem is that the County Council cannot order the school system to implement furloughs; they can only cut the schools by an equivalent amount of money. A five-day furlough plan the council is considering would cost MCPS $33.7 million.

MCPS is resolutely opposed to furloughs for school employees. The Gazette and the Post reported that the school system is threatening to sue the County Council to prevent cuts over and above the Executive’s proposal. But neither story is completely accurate. The truth reveals even MORE bad blood between MCPS and the council than is implied by the Gazette and Post articles.

The school system consulted its legal counsel for advice on how to fight additional cuts. The schools’ attorney reviewed state law and found Education Title 5, § 5-102(c), which says the following about local school budgets that are forwarded to County Executives and then sent to County Councils:

(c) Reduction by county executive.-

(1) This subsection applies only to a county that has a county governing body that consists of a county executive and county council.

(2) The county executive shall indicate in writing which major categories of the annual budget of the county board have been denied in whole or reduced in part and the reason for the denial or reduction.

(3) The county council may restore any denial or reduction made by the county executive in the annual budget submitted by the county board.
The school system’s lawyer believes this language prohibits the council from cutting the school budget below the level recommended by the Executive. The council’s attorney disagrees. The matter awaits the courts if a suit is filed.

MCPS wrote an in-house draft based on this legal theory, which it shared with the County Attorney. The County Attorney then shared it with the council, which leaked it to the Gazette and the Post despite discussion of the issue in a closed session. In contrast to the published articles, the school system never formally threatened litigation. Therefore, a lawsuit is not quite on the table – YET.

Both sides are now pointing sharp-clawed fingers at the other. The council believes MCPS is playing politics by evaluating legal justifications for a lawsuit. MCPS believes the council is playing politics by leaking a secret in-house legal draft. The council will not accept any limits on its authority to cut the budget. MCPS will not support any MOE waiver which exceeds the County Executive’s proposed cut. Neither side is prepared to budge.

Anyone ever get behind the wheel and play a game of chicken blindfolded?