Montgomery council, Board of Education at odds again over budget
Schools panel seeks state's help in protecting against cuts
Less than a year after pledging to improve communication, Montgomery County's Board of Education and its funding authority, the County Council, are fighting again over education spending.
Last week, the school board asked the state to step in to protect its $2.1 billion budget. And on Thursday, Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring sent the board a letter asking it to withdraw the state petition and concede that the council has the authority to cut education spending.
"The council will vigorously defend its authority and responsibility under the Charter to balance the county operating budget equitably between the public schools and other vital services," Ervin said in the letter to Board of Education President Christopher S. Barclay (Dist. 4) of Takoma Park.
Last year, the school board threatened to sue the county over possible cuts to its budget, using the same legal argument it cited in its March 2 memo to the state Board of Education.
In that memo, attorneys for the county school board requested that the state board advise the County Council that it cannot fund the school system below a state-imposed standard the maintenance of effort.
The county board also requests that the state board force the council to approve the level of school funding included in County Executive Isiah Leggett's (D) budget, which he will release Tuesday.
Leggett has said the county cannot afford to fund the school system at maintenance-of-effort levels in his proposed fiscal 2012 budget. Montgomery County is facing a $300 million budget shortfall.
Maintenance of effort requires counties to fund their public schools at the same per-pupil level as the previous year, in order to receive increases in state aid for those schools.
"It's not helpful when one agency in effect sues another," said Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, comparing the school board's recent petition to last year's lawsuit.
He called the recent effort misguided and said it was a waste of county tax dollars, which the school board uses to pay its legal fees.
In its memo, the county board states that the council does not have the authority to reduce the school system's budget under state law a position with which the council disagrees.
As of Thursday afternoon, Ervin said the school board had not responded to her request to withdraw its petition. Ervin said the council also plans to send a memo to the state Board of Education, questioning whether the school board has jurisdiction over the matter.
Montgomery school board member Patricia B. O'Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda said the full board would have to discuss Ervin's request with its attorney.
O'Neill declined to say whether she thought the school board should withdraw its memo to the state board.
Council members said they were surprised the school board did not discuss its concerns with the council before issuing the state request because both had pledged to collaborate after last year's threatened lawsuit.
Ervin said she and Councilwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring met with Barclay on March 4, but he did not mention the memo, which was sent two days before.
"We thought we were still in our collaborative moment," Ervin said. "But obviously that is not the case."
Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park, who was council president last year, said since then the council has worked to involve the school board in budget discussions.
"There can be no surprise that there is an issue now," she said. "We said this nicely to them all along," that the county cannot afford to increase education spending.
However, at least one school board member says the council has itself to blame for the current situation.
O'Neill said council members told board members in private conversations that they had been considering seeking clarification about the county's obligations with respect to maintenance-of-effort funding.
"They shouldn't have been surprised, based on the conversations from last year and the lingering questions around this matter," O'Neill said.