Monday, November 09, 2009

Marc Elrich Comments on School Funding Dispute

County Council Member Marc Elrich, a former 5th grade teacher at MCPS for many years, offered the following comments about the county’s school funding conflict with the state.


The State BOE (Board of Education) is fundamentally wrong on this one. The compromise would have been to grant us a waiver the right way. To be sure, they are not qualified to judge either the state of the economy or the state of our budgets. The absurdity of their decision shows that.

The only reason we did not make MOE (maintenance of effort) is because the unions gave back their COLAS. The value of that act by the unions, as part of something all the unions did to help us avert a total budget meltdown, was virtually equal to the amount we didn't spend in failing to meet the MOE. In short, if we'd funded the union contracts, we'd have met MOE. We failed to meet it by the value of those contracts.

But, if we’d funded those contracts, we’d have had to fund all of the other union contracts because they were to be treated the same. The cost to the County would have been around $125 million total. To find the $125 million, we’d have had to cut that amount from the government side of the budget (since any cuts to schools would have brought them under MOE again.) There is no way that that could have been achieved without massive layoffs. It’s a number so big that it could not be done with furloughs. It would have cost a very large number of jobs and substantially reduced services. It was a very bad option.

The fundamental issue is this. If in hard economic times you fail to meet MOE because the labor unions are willing to reduce their contracts, you should get a waiver. This is not a reduction in spending in the classroom, it doesn’t increase class size and it doesn’t reduce educational programming, all of which are the laudable intentions behind the MOE law in the first place.

The Board’s application of the law leads to even more absurd implications. If the Superintendent found a way to reorganize administration that saved $25 million dollars and if school budget is then $25 million less than MOE would require, then you’d fail to meet MOE and get penalized. How nuts is that? Under the current rules, you can’t save money, you can only spend more money. Something is seriously not right here. It defies logic, it disincentivizes any effort to be more efficient, and it punishes schools if unions contribute to balancing the budget. It’s just wrong.

I would hope that there’s an honorable way out. The State BOE actually can’t force the County to do anything. What they would do is reduce funding to the school system which would only make the school funding situation worse! The County budget outlook is not improving. We don’t have the money. A confrontation over this will not produce a good outcome.

The other important point is that the county has routinely exceeded the MOE requirement, year after year. It has never been the County policy to fund as little as is needed to pass the State MOE requirement, but rather to spend as much as it can toward providing the best education possible. So for years, the County has poured money into the schools. Yet for this test, none of that matters. The fact that our failure to meet this year’s MOE is because, in part, of our history of spending even more than required was totally ignored by the State. And what message does that send to the Counties? Don’t spend above the MOE level because if you ever find yourself in an economic bind, your history of doing everything you can won’t count for beans and, in fact, your higher levels of past spending will drive even higher MOE requirements. It’s like being punished for doing a good thing.