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Board of Education Committee Recommends Eliminating Credit Card Use

by Aaron Kraut | July 23, 2014 at 11:10 am | No Comments

MCPSAfter a few months of embarrassing revelations about members’ use of school system-issued credit cards, an ad hoc committee of the Board of Education on Tuesday recommended substantial changes.

The committee recommended eliminating the usage of school system-issued credit cards by Board members, implementing a per diem for members attending professional conferences, limiting home office expenses for Board members and establishing a list of pre-approved public events Board members can attend.

The committee also released a report from attorney Karl Racine of the Venable law firm, who concluded that while the Board’s credit card and expenses rules are weak and ambiguous, there is no evidence that members intentionally used school system-issued credit cards for personal expenses.

Board member Chris Barclay repaid the school system more than $1,900 to cover 16 unauthorized charges over five years. An additional batch of records released by the school system in June showed Barclay and Board member Rebecca Smondrowski charged for hotel stays and room service in D.C. during a conference, despite living within easy driving distance.

The recommendations will go to the full Board of Education on July 28 for review and a vote.

“The Board of Education takes its responsibility seriously and we want to make sure that we are being good stewards of public dollars,” Board of Education President Phil Kauffman said in a prepared press release on Tuesday. “Our review process has shown that we clearly need to improve the review and approval process of Board member expenses. I think our recommendations today will go a long way in ensuring that we have good processes in place to manage expenses.”

The specific recommendations follow, from MCPS:

1.  Removal of Credit Card Authorization.  The Ad Hoc Committee recommends that Board members not have credit cards, even for the purposes of authorized travel outside of Montgomery County. Board administrative staff may continue to use purchase cards for authorized purchases.

2.  Per Diem on Authorized Travel. The Ad Hoc Committee recommends providing Board members a per diem for nonlocal travel. In some cases, the per diem may be given to Board members in advance of travel in an amount not to exceed the per diem allowed for the trip.

3.  Home Office.  The Ad Hoc Committee recommends that Board Members still be provided with the necessary equipment and supplies to maintain home offices, but that the Board no longer grant reimbursements for home office internet service.

4.  Development of List of Pre-approved Events/Meetings for Board Members.  The Ad Hoc Committee developed a recommended list of conferences, events and meetings that Board members would be authorized to attend or travel to for 2014-2015.

5.  Semiannual Reports. The Ad Hoc Committee recommends that the Board’s Fiscal Management Committee review, on a semiannual basis, summary reports on the status of expenditures by Board members and the Board office.  The full Board will receive the reports in their regular Board packets as items of information.

Survey Shows Cyberbullying, ‘Risk Behavior’ Rates Of County Students

by Aaron Kraut | July 18, 2014 at 2:25 pm | 149 views | 2 Comments

Image via MCPSNearly as many MCPS students reported being cyberbullied as opposed to bullied on school property, according to a state survey done in spring 2013 that delves into a number of “youth risk behaviors.”

The recently released 2013 Maryland Youth Risk Behavior Survey Report is conducted every two years in Maryland classrooms to get a sense of student nutritional habits, whether high school- and middle school-aged kids use drugs and alcohol, if they text or email while driving and a host of other risky behaviors.

The 2013 report found that 14.1 percent of 4,096 Montgomery County high school students surveyed said they have been “electronically bullied” during the past year. That’s nearly identical to the 14 percent of students statewide who said they had been electronically bullied.

In Montgomery County, 18.9 percent of the high school students surveyed said they had been bullied on school property during the past year.

Both the statewide and Montgomery County data showed significant disparities in the cyberbullying rates for males and females, with 17 percent of female survey-takers in MCPS responding yes. Eleven percent of male survey takers in Montgomery County said they had been cyberbullied.

In a similar 2012-2013 study in Fairfax County, 11.9 percent of students reported having been cyberbullied in the past year by a student at their school, with female students nearly twice as likely to report being cyberbullied.

MCPS has started a Cybercivility Task Force to “develop strategies to encourage healthy online decisions/behaviors by students and adults and create/evaluate tools that schools, parents, students and community members can use to foster a culture of cybercivility.”

The move has its roots in a series of allegedly inappropriate tweets sent to MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr from students last winter. The students wanted to get the school day off because of winter weather. Starr wrote an open letter to MCPS parents encouraging them to be aware of what their children were doing on internet social networks.

The rate of students who said they were cyberbullied in the 2013 survey was consistent with the 2011 survey.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey also asked how many students who drove a car during the past 30 days texted or emailed while driving. A little more than 31 percent of MCPS students and 33.1 percent of students statewide responded they had.

Other questions zeroed in on alcohol and drug use, sexual behaviors and feelings of sadness or hopelessness — 26.9 percent of Montgomery County high school students responded they felt so sad or hopeless “almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities,” over the past year.

Ahead of new, federally mandated nutrition standards starting this month in school cafeterias, 24.3 percent of Montgomery County students said they had eaten fruits and vegetables five or more times per day during the past week. The statewide response rate on that question was 20.1 percent.

The entire 2013 Maryland Youth Risk Behavior Survey Report and summary can be found here.

Image via MCPS

MCPS Officials Not Happy With Media’s Focus On School Boundary Discussion

by Aaron Kraut | July 15, 2014 at 3:15 pm | 437 views | 14 Comments

BOE President Phil Kauffman, via Phil Kauffman

Two top Montgomery County school officials on Tuesday emphasized there are no plans to change school boundaries in an attempt to solve the school system’s achievement gap.

Board of Education President Phil Kauffman said it was “unfortunate” that the media focus of Monday’s Council Committee hearing on the topic was squarely on the question of school boundaries and school choice. Three members of Council — Craig Rice, Nancy Navarro and Cherri Branson — asked school officials if redrawing boundaries could help solve the widening gap in academic performance between low-income and high-income county high schools.

The idea of more school choice, a concept which involves allowing low-income students to attend traditionally better performing high-income schools, was included in the Council’s discussion topics of a report that outlined the disparities.

But at the beginning of Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, Kauffman and MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr said the media missed out on covering programs in the school system already in place to improve schools in lower income areas.

“I think the unfortunate part is what the takeaway from the media was. And we already see the headline in the Washington Post on the issue of what came out is like, ‘Should we be doing boundary changes to address the achievement gap?’ And that was the headline and rather than discussing everything that is happening, the takeaway is really what’s not happening,” Kauffman said. ”There were maybe three councilmembers who said we should be looking at boundary changes.”

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr (file photo)Starr tweeted how frustrated he was that after more than three hours of discussion, the media’s focus was on the school boundary issue.

“Three-and-a-half hours of a pretty rich conversation of our efforts got boiled down to a non-existent boundary plan,” Starr said Tuesday. “That’s just the way it goes because it is how people think of these things.”

MCPS also issued a press release later Tuesday to correct what it labeled as inaccuracies in some media reports on Monday’s meeting.

“Dr. Starr and Mr. Kauffman felt that it was important to clarify what was discussed yesterday at the Council meeting. There were references in several stories that MCPS would be considering boundary changes as part of its efforts to narrow the achievement gap,” wrote MCPS spokesperson Gboyinde Onijala. “This was inaccurate given that Dr. Starr, Dr. Statham, and members of the Board spent the majority of the time highlighting  various programs and initiatives that we have in place now, as well as  several strategies moving forward.”

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UPDATED: In Talking Achievement Gap, County Officials Touch On Prickly School Boundary Issue

by Aaron Kraut | July 14, 2014 at 1:50 pm | 535 views | No Comments

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr (file photo)

CLARIFICATION: In reference to Board of Education President Phil Kaufmann’s comments to the Council Committee on Monday, MCPS spokesperson Gboyinde Onijala said the school system does consider demographics and socioeconomic issues for the boundaries of new schools.

The prickly subject of redrawing school boundaries to better integrate schools eventually made its way into the discussion of a widening achievement gap on Monday at the County Council.

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr said the school system has never put redrawing boundaries “off limits,” but Councilmember Cherri Branson questioned why traditional boundaries have become regarded by some as “sacrosanct.”

The report that was the topic of Monday’s Education Committee worksession (from the Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight) determined that student achievement between the county’s lower-income and higher-income schools has only become more polarized.

According to the OLO report, the gap in standardized test performance, graduation rates, suspensions and eligibility status between the county’s 11 lower-income high schools and 14 higher-income high schools has widened since MCPS began giving east county and downcounty students some degree of school choice.

The report also found that low-income students in low-poverty schools “were more likely to meet college and career readiness benchmarks and less likely to demonstrate at-risk outcomes than their low-income peers in high-poverty high schools.”

The report spurred a series of suggestions and much local media attention when it was released in April. Some commentators, including Bethesda resident and school integration expert Richard Kahlenberg, suggested MCPS explore ways to allow low-income students to transfer to wealthier schools.

“I’m really confused by the whole notion of boundaries here. It appears to me there are a few schools that would logically be in the Northeast and Downcounty Consortiums by where they’re located,” Branson said. “And they’re not.”

Board of Education President Phil Kauffman said redrawing school boundaries only comes up when new schools are ready to open and that the BOE doesn’t look at boundary issues with minority or socioeconomic demographics in mind.

“The way we have addressed those issues over time has been in the area of special programs, of magnets, language immersion, the consortia,” Kauffman said. “That is something that we’re going to be looking at.”

Kauffman went on to argue that the integration of the county’s school system is also an affordable housing issue. He then put the responsibility for affordable housing squarely on the County Council by questioning if the Council required enough affordable housing in the 2010 White Flint Sector Plan.

“That’s something we need to be more proactive in terms of talking with you,” Kauffman said. “Those are things you need to be cognizant of.”

Starr was careful to point out a multitude of factors — some not in the school system’s control — that contribute to the county’s gap between low-income and wealthy schools.

He also said MCPS will start a long process involving a study and community engagement to establish some sort of baseline agreement for how the school system should approach the related issues of integration and school choice.

But Starr, who oversaw a school district in Stamford, Conn., that has strict racial balance requirements, made it clear MCPS knows just how politically touchy the subject is.

“When you draw boundaries to include, it also means that somebody is out,” Starr said.

MCPS To Roll Out 40,000 Laptops, Tablets To Classrooms

by Aaron Kraut | July 11, 2014 at 8:35 am | 330 views | 1 Comment

Laptop learning in the classroom, via MCPSMCPS on Thursday announced an initiative that would eventually bring 40,000 laptops and tablets to students in classrooms at all schools around the county.

The $15.03 million purchase of the devices must be approved by the Board of Education, which meets on Tuesday and will see a presentation on the technology rollout.

The multi-year effort to provide all students with access to mobile computers on a cloud-based network started last school yearn. Nine MCPS schools piloted the use of Chromebook laptops and Android-based tablets to create videos, podcasts and websites for assignments, allow students and their parents to review lessons at home and let teachers provide real-time assistance to students doing homework.

The rollout plan for the 2014-2015 school year would bring Chromebook laptops to students in Grades 3 through 12, while students in kindergarten through Grade 2 would use primarily tablets. According to a MCPS press release, the devices will first go to the 67 schools part of the school district’s Technology Modernization program.

The remaining schools will receive the devices throughout the year. If approved, 30,000 devices will come to elementary and middle schools for use by students in Grades 3, 5 and 6. Another 10,000 devices will be provided to high schools for use in social studies classes.

“Our community has been asking MCPS to make more technology available in the classroom, and I am excited to begin ramping up our efforts to provide students with 21st century learning spaces,” Superintendent Joshua Starr said in the press release. “This technology initiative will enhance teaching and learning and provide our educators with the tools they need to engage students and individualize instruction to meet their needs.”

A MCPS-produced video accompanied the press release. In the video, students at the pilot schools are shown using the devices to create a video trailer for a book passage and teachers say the technology has made more kids more engaged.

Funding for the purchase of the devices came in the FY 15 Operating Budget approved in May by the Montgomery County Council with more funding help through a federal program to help schools increase access to the internet and technology.

According to the press release, MCPS got bids from six vendors and has selected CDW Government LLC to provide the devices.

MCPS said teacher training for how to use and teach with the devices will start this summer and continue during the school year.

Photo via MCPS

BOE Member Wants Low-Cost Options For Later School Start Times

by Aaron Kraut | June 17, 2014 at 7:00 pm | 153 views | No Comments

A member of the Board of Education wants MCPS to look at lower cost options for moving back high school start times before scrapping the idea.

Board of Education Vice President Patricia O’Neill on Tuesday introduced a resolution requesting MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr come up with other proposals for later high school days. This came after Starr recommended against his own proposal last week, justifying the decision in part because of costs that could exceed $20 million.

“I fully understand the superintendent’s decision not to recommend moving forward at this time given the fiscal challenges that we face in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016,” O’Neill wrote. “However, I believe we should continue to explore other lower cost options and their implications to see if it is possible to address the interests of our community and to offer some relief to our high school students.”

Starr tied moving high school start times back 50 minutes to moving middle school start times up 10 minutes and extending the elementary school day by 30 minutes.

The report that accompanied Starr’s recommendation cited the estimated $21.6 million in costs of making the switch. The costs would include $12.9 million to buy and operate 57 extra general education buses and 96 extra buses for magnet and special education students.

MCPS also said it found that adding 30 minutes to the elementary school day — whether by extending recess or lunch or increasing art, music or physical education classes — would cost between $8 million and $47 million a year.

The decision was a surprise to some, especially advocates for moving start times back who felt Starr was on the same page. Some seemed miffed as to why Starr’s recommendation tied the later high school start time to the longer elementary school day. MCPS also cited mixed opinions among polling of elementary school parents and students as a reason against the switch.

The Washington Post editorial board came out Monday and said Starr’s reversal was “wrong,” and that the Board of Education needed to reconsider it during its session Tuesday. Parents and students for moving high school start times back brought signs to the morning portion of the session in Rockville.

O’Neill wondered why Starr’s proposal was deemed to be so expensive:

I am disappointed that a viable, cost-efficient proposal is not before the Board for consideration. I understand that Fairfax County Public Schools is reviewing four options that range in cost from $2.8 to $7.7 million. I believe it is important for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) to review those options and other options elsewhere, and determine if there are any feasible options for MCPS that fall within a similar cost range.

The resolution asks Starr to review options for moving back start times that are less than $10 million and to submit a report to the Board in time for consideration during the FY 2016 operating budget request.

Board Of Ed Committee Agrees To Tighten Credit Card Rules

by Aaron Kraut | June 13, 2014 at 9:05 am | No Comments

MCPSAfter weeks of bad press about its members’ use of district-issued credit cards, a Board of Education Committee on Thursday made public a set of recommendations for tightening the Board’s expense and reimbursement rules.

Board President Phil Kauffman, Vice President Patricia O’Neill and Board member Michael Durso — the Board’s Fiscal Management Committee — will recommend new guidelines including no county-funded hotel stays within 50 miles of MCPS headquarters in Rockville.

Board member Chris Barclay, who’s also running for County Council, repaid the school system more than $1,900 to cover 16 unauthorized charges over five years. A new batch of records released by the school system last week showed Barclay and Board member Rebecca Smondrowski charged for hotel stays in D.C. during a conference, despite living within easy driving distance.

Other recommendations from the committee include:

– Allowing Board of Education members to use district-issued credit cards only for the purpose of authorized out-of-county travel, such as conferences and workshops. Eligible expenses incurred while conducting Board business locally would be paid by the Board member and then reimbursed, as long as proper documentation is provided;

– Requiring preapproval for costs associated with Board members’ attendance at any out-of-county conferences, workshops, and meetings;

– Requiring preapproval for tickets to attend local events;

– No longer allowing Board members to pay for the meals of other people, such as elected leaders, staff, or constituents;

– Limiting the circumstances in which Board members can seek reimbursements for their own meals, and setting monetary caps on those meals that are aligned with State of Maryland limits;

– Requiring preapproval for out-of-county mileage reimbursement;

– Fully enforcing and enhancing existing requirements that detailed receipts and information be provided regarding expenses before reimbursement is made;

– Requiring quarterly reports on Board member expenditures and an annual review by an external auditor; and

– Requiring annual training for Board members on expenditure guidelines.

The credit card charges that involve paying for lunches or other meals with county elected officials have drawn particular attention from the Parents’ Coalition, a watchdog group that first sought out the Board’s credit card records.

According to the MCPS press release on the recommendations, the committee asked staff to propose language to put into the Board of Education Handbook to clarify its expense procedures. The committee will likely have another meeting before submitting its recommendations to the full Board of Education in July.

Starr: Don’t Move Back School Starting Times

by Aaron Kraut | June 10, 2014 at 10:45 am | 428 views | 4 Comments

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr (file photo)MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr on Tuesday recommended against moving back school start times, despite what appeared to be considerable momentum for a proposal he shared last year.

In a press release that accompanies a report to the Board of Education, Starr said he is now recommending against the plan because of more than $20 million in costs and “mixed feedback” in a series of community outreach events.

“I recommended we study changing bell times because I believe it is an important issue that deserves our attention,” Starr said in a prepared statement. “But after receiving the final cost estimates, along with mixed feedback from our community, I do not believe it is feasible or responsible to move forward with these changes at this time. However, we will continue to discuss and monitor this issue.”

Starr’s recommendations — which came after a school system-organized work group — included three changes:

  • Move high school start times 50 minutes later, from 7:25 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. with school ending at 3 p.m. instead of 2:10 p.m.
  • Move middle school start times 10 minutes earlier, from 7:55 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. with school ending at 2:30 p.m. instead of 2:40 p.m.
  • Keep elementary school start times (8:50 a.m. and 9:15 a.m.) as they are but extend the school day by 30 minutes so school ends at 3:35 p.m. and 4 p.m.

But after community forums, Starr concluded that “the MCPS community was not of a single mind about the proposal.” MCPS cited results from surveys of more than 15,300 parents, 45,000 students and almost 15,000 staff members:

Parents were most in favor of the proposal, with 78 percent of those surveyed supporting Dr. Starr’s recommendation. However, high school students (50 percent) and staff (51 percent) were evenly divided on the idea. Middle school students and staff favored the idea (70 percent and 65 percent, respectively). However, a majority of elementary school students and staff were opposed to changing bell times with only 35 percent of students and 30 percent of staff favoring the shift.

There also was significant concern about extending the elementary school day by 30 minutes, which is needed to ensure that school buses have enough time to make their runs. If the elementary school day were extended, there was a strong preference for students to receive breaks during the day or additional time for recess, physical education, or the arts.

MCPS also cited the estimated $21.6 million in costs of making the switch as a factor in Starr’s decision. The costs would include $12.9 million to buy and operate 57 extra general education buses and 96 extra buses for magnet and special education students, according to the report released Tuesday.

MCPS also said it found that adding 30 minutes to the elementary school day — whether by extending recess or lunch or increasing art, music or physical education classes — would cost between $8 million and $47 million a year.

Starr said the school system has other more pressing issues that demand funding.

“Bell times are an important issue related to student success and well-being, but have to be viewed in the context of other priorities and needs the school system must consider,” Starr said in the prepared release. “These needs include hiring more teachers, counselors, and school psychologists to meet the academic and social emotional needs of our students;  expanding the use of technology in the classroom; reducing class sizes, especially in schools with the largest achievement gaps; and investing in other programs that will  meet the individual needs of our students.”

Many MCPS parents have argued a later high school start time would mean more awake and more productive days for the system’s teenage students. The effort also sparked movement on the state level.

In October, Starr argued for his recommendation for later start times in an appearance on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show.

“This is not a panacea for academic achievement, as measured by standardized test scores or anything like that,” Starr said. “This is about the state in which our kids come to school. We want our kids to be well-rested.”

On Tuesday, he was singing a different tune.

“This report gives us a comprehensive understanding of the views of the community and the associated costs with changing bell times,” Starr said. “We will continue to monitor this topic and I hope that it is an issue we can address in the future.”

The Board of Education will discuss the issue on June 17.

MCPS Performs Well In College Enrollment Rates

by Aaron Kraut | June 5, 2014 at 4:50 pm | 229 views | No Comments

Class of 2014 B-CC graduates listen to graduation speaker Martin O'Malley last week, via B-CC High SchoolMore than 78 percent of MCPS Class of 2012 graduates enrolled in college within 16 months, the second highest enrollment rate in the state.

According to statistics from the Maryland Department of Education, Montgomery County’s 78.4 percent college enrollment rate is seven percentage points behind Howard County (85.6) for the best mark in the state.

The high schools with the highest Class of 2012 college enrollment rates were Wootton (88.9 percent), Poolesville (87.3 percent), Churchill (86.5 percent) and Bethesda-Chevy Chase (84.9 percent).

Bethesda-Chevy Chase also had the fourth highest college enrollment rate among African American students with 81.8 percent and Hispanic graduates with 75.8 percent. The overall MCPS enrollment rate was 74.8 percent for African American Class of 2012 graduates and 62.8 percent for Hispanic graduates.

“We have to make sure that every MCPS student who wants to go to college has the chance to do so and is ready to succeed and get their degree,” Superintendent Joshua Starr said in a press release. “We’re doing better than most, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

The overall state enrollment rate was 70 percent, and 64 percent for African American graduates and 58.9 percent for Hispanic graduates. Montgomery’s 65.3 percent enrollment rate for students on Free and Reduced Meals — an indicator of poverty — was second in the state to Howard County. The state enrollment rate for graduates on FARMS was 55.8 percent.

MCPS To Change Way It Predicts Enrollment Numbers

by Aaron Kraut | June 2, 2014 at 9:15 am | 537 views | 4 Comments

Bethesda-Chevy Chase High SchoolMCPS officials and county planners next week will detail a new methodology they say predicts how new development affects school enrollment numbers.

In the past, the MCPS Division of Long Range Planning used the Planning Department’s 2008 Census Update Survey to calculate “student generation rates” across four types of housing and the elementary, middle and high school levels in each of the school system’s 25 high school clusters.

The generation rates serve as a predictor for how many students will come from a new development. The school system’s enrollment numbers have been rising since 2008, which is why Montgomery County officials have labeled the growth as a school capacity crisis in their push for more state funding.

If projected enrollment at any school level exceeds 105 percent of capacity, new residential development in the affected cluster will require school facility payments. If projected enrollment exceeds 120 percent of capacity, a moratorium is placed on new residential development.

At the June 12 Planning Board hearing, the Board will be presented with the FY2015 Annual School Test results. No school cluster exceeds the 120 percent capacity threshold, but 16 clusters have at least one level of school that exceeds 105 percent capacity. Five of those clusters have at least two school levels that exceed school facility payment threshold, including the middle school and high school portions of the Whitman High School cluster.

Last year, 18 school clusters required the payment of a school facility fee with seven school clusters
exceeding capacity at more than one school level.

MCPS enrollment forecasts have been highly accurate on a countywide scale. The total county one-year forecast is typically within one percent of actual enrollment. The six-year forecast — which drives school construction decisions in the six-year capital budget — is typically within one to two percent.

In their explanation for the new methodology, planners said predicting enrollment in individual school clusters is much more difficult.

To help address that, MCPS staff and planners changed things up. Instead of relying on the 2008 Census Update Survey, staff matched up a MCPS student address database with a file of property parcels from the Planning Department.

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Trachtenberg Says Council Used ‘Detroit Accounting Style’ To Fund Schools

by Aaron Kraut | May 29, 2014 at 3:20 pm | 211 views | No Comments

Duchy Trachtenberg in a debate filmed on May 22 in Rockville, via Montgomery Community Media(Update at 6:30 p.m) Duchy Trachtenberg sharply criticized the creative accounting measures the County Council used to fully fund next year’s MCPS budget request.

In a televised debate with District 1 Council incumbent Roger Berliner, Trachtenberg said using one-time funding sources — such as a healthcare trust for retired MCPS employees — was what “people call the Detroit accounting style.” Detroit filed for bankruptcy last year with an estimated debt of $18-$20 billion.

“They actually went into the retirement, the retiree health funds to a large degree,” Trachtenberg said. “I think over $30 million was taken out of there and I don’t believe that was the right way to fund the additional $51 million that the school system was asking for.”

The debate was filmed on May 22 at the Montgomery Community Media studios and broadcast on Montgomery Channel 21 this week. The Council decided to fund the $2.3 billion MCPS budget request by taking money from the healthcare trust, a projected surplus in existing healthcare funds and the MCPS general fund balance.

That way, the Council avoided using typical funding sources and going over the dreaded maintenance of effort minimum funding level.

The law now requires counties in Maryland to fund local school systems at the same per-pupil level as in the previous fiscal year. Going over the maintenance of effort minimum, as MCPS had requested, would have locked the county in to a new minimum funding level that county officials said could threaten the budgets of other county services.

The Council actually used $27.2 million from MCPS’ old retiree health trust to pay FY15 retiree health costs. The Council plan also added the same amount, $27.2 million, to MCPS’ new retiree health trust, which is in county government, and doesn’t affect the maintenance of effort spending number.

“I actually think it betrays a lack of oversight by the Council. It’s what many call, people call the Detroit accounting style,” Trachtenberg said, “and I can assure everyone listening to this debate that the first thing that the rating agencies are going to ask about when representatives meet with them to talk about the county budget that was passed, is going to be why did we go into a retiree benefit reserve fund and do it at the expense of the retirees and look to fund our operating budget in that manner. That is not sound fiscal management.”

Trachtenberg prefaced her statement by saying she agreed with the Council’s move to fully fund the MCPS request, just not the way in which the Council did it.

Councilmembers, MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr and County Executive Isiah Leggett celebrated the budget agreement on May 14. Berliner called it a, “creative, win-win solution.”

But some questioned how the Council planned to fund the MCPS budget request next year and if the move was in response to primary year pressure from the politically influential county teachers union.

The day before the debate, the Montgomery County Education Association endorsed Berliner over Trachtenberg for its well-known “Apple Ballot” handed out at county polls.

“We did protect taxpayers,” Berliner said in the debate. “It was creative and I think it was something that our school system embraced, that our county executive embraced and that our County Council embraced. And it was the right thing to do because our school system has challenges and needs these dollars. And we now have time to work through the maintenance of effort law, which certainly should not be done away with. But even the superintendent of schools acknowledged that there can be tweaks to the law that make it more manageable.”

You can view the full 46-minute debate here. The discussion of school funding starts at the 35:37 mark and continues until the 39:45 mark.

O’Malley, NIH Director Among Local High School Commencement Speakers

by Aaron Kraut | May 23, 2014 at 9:35 am | 177 views | No Comments

Martin O'Malley, via State of Maryland Francis Collins, via NIH Donald Verrilli, via Department of Justice

Gov. Martin O’Malley will speak to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School graduates next week in a commencement speech that will be live streamed.

O’Malley, the term-limited governor exploring a primary presidential run, is known mostly for his time in Annapolis and as mayor of Baltimore.

But until age 8, O’Malley lived in the shadow of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, in a house on Sleaford Road. He went to Our Lady of Lourdes School just across Pearl Street before heading to Gonzaga College High School in D.C.

B-CC’s graduation ceremony is set for 10 a.m. on May 29 at DAR Constitution Hall in D.C. DAR will provide a live stream of all MCPS high school graduations there. MCPS is also encouraging attendees to provide photos.

Walter Johnson High School’s graduation ceremony will also be at DAR. NIH Director Francis Collins, the noted physician-geneticist also known for his guitar work, will speak in a ceremony that begins at 2:30 p.m. on May 30.

Walt Whitman High School seniors are set to graduate in a ceremony starting at 2:30 p.m. on June 11. U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. will be the speaker.

More than 10,000 MCPS students are expected to receive diplomas in the next few weeks.

County Council Agrees To ‘Groundbreaking’ MCPS Budget Arrangement

by Aaron Kraut | May 14, 2014 at 12:35 pm | 157 views | No Comments

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr (file photo)The Montgomery County Council on Wednesday unanimously agreed to an arrangement that fully funds the school system’s requested operating budget for next fiscal year.

The package — introduced by Council President Craig Rice on Monday — also avoids putting the county over the state’s maintenance of effort law minimum. The law requires the county to fund MCPS at the same per-pupil level it did in the previous fiscal year. Going over the maintenance of effort minimum, as MCPS had requested, would have created a new minimum funding level that county officials have said could threaten the budgets of other county services.

Based on the unanimous straw vote on Wednesday, the county will instead fully fund the $2.3 billion MCPS budget request by taking money from a healthcare trust for retired MCPS employees, a projected surplus in existing healthcare funds and the MCPS general fund balance.

County Executive Isiah Leggett had recommended going $24 million over the maintenance of effort minimum. The MCPS budget request was $51.7 million more than the MOE minimum.

“It shows a real collaboration between the Council and the Board of Education and all the stakeholders in MCPS, in a way we haven’t had since I’ve been on the Council,” said Councilmember Nancy Floreen.

Rice’s Education Committee recommended the arrangement on Monday. In front of the full Council, the creative budgeting didn’t face much questioning. MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr did.

Members of Council asked Starr about the school system’s evaluation of its own programs, including ones started at individual schools meant to address the much-discussed achievement gap between white and minority students.

Starr asked that the Education Committee make time for him and his staff this summer to explain how MCPS evaluates its own work.

At the end of the two-hour discussion, the Council held the unanimous vote.

“I think we have come up with a creative, win-win solution,” Councilmember Roger Berliner said. “It’s a win for our kids, a win for our schools and our taxpayers. That’s hard to do. There were leaps of faith taken by both parties.”

Council President Uses Creative Accounting Measures To Fully Fund MCPS

by Aaron Kraut | May 12, 2014 at 11:00 am | 122 views | No Comments

County leaders gather for press conference announcing new school budget funding arrangement, via Sonya BurkeCouncil President Craig Rice on Monday announced an alternative way to fully fund the school system’s $2.3 billion budget request for next year that won’t put the county over the feared maintenance of effort minimum.

County Executive Isiah Leggett recommended the county go $26 million over the maintenance of effort minimum in its fiscal year 2015 school operating budget. MCPS requested a total that is $51.7 million over the minimum. But county leaders were wary that the county would have to fund the schools at the same rate of per-pupil funding in future years.

That set up a potentially divisive debate between school supporters and county elected officials with a June primary looming. PTA members made it clear they would be watching to see if the Council fully funded the school system’s budget request.

Rice and the Council’s Education Committee recommended an approach that would shift the $26 million in county funds over the MOE to a healthcare trust for retired MCPS employees. Another $13.3 million would come from a projected surplus in existing healthcare funds. Another $11.2 million would come from the MCPS general fund balance, a move also recommended by Leggett.

The combined $51.7 million in funding over the MOE, but from other sources, would not reset the MOE base for next year.

In the Monday Committee hearing on the new arrangement, Rice said he made the move to fund schools, not because of any political pressure from school unions or PTA groups. He made reference to closing the school system’s achievement gap in his remarks.

“That is ultimately what this is about,” Rice said. “This budget isn’t about pressure. It isn’t about election year. It’s about making sure we’re being responsive to our community.”

Councilmember Phil Andrews, an outspoken critic of the new MOE law, backed Rice’s plan. Andrews is running for county executive in part on his record of fiscal restraint. The approach would be a one-time taking of money from the trusts for an ongoing cost. It’s unclear how county officials would deal with a similar situation next budget season.

“The problem with the proposal we received is it would have locked us in year-after-year and over a 10-year period required taxpayers be on the hook for $260 million that could not have been adjusted,” said Andrews, speaking to Rice. “You’ve developed a proposal that allows us to increase spending on MCPS for children and to do so in a way that does not lock taxpayers in. So it’s a fiscally responsible way to do it.”

Rice, Andrews, other members of Council, Leggett, Starr and other school system representatives held a press conference announcing the new funding arrangement shortly after the Committee session.

Photo via @SonyaNBurke

Board of Education To Take Up School Food In June

by Aaron Kraut | May 9, 2014 at 1:30 pm | No Comments

Flickr photo by Tim NagooglyThe Board of Education will take up food selection in its cafeterias on June 3 and the group pushing MCPS to offer healthier options hopes to have a strong presence at the meeting.

In an email to supporters on Friday, Real Food For Kids – Montgomery said it plans a campaign of emails and phone calls to school board members before the meeting. It also hopes its supporters show up in the audience. Signs will be provided.

The group has been critical of the school system’s cafeteria menus and has won support from a few members of County Council in pushing MCPS to make substantive changes in its food program. The group was key in getting MCPS to ban strawberry milk and quarreled with MCPS officals over snow day-influenced menu changes that meant two days of double-stuffed pizza in elementary schools during one week in January.

Real Food also has a petition with about 1,250 signatures demanding options such as all-you-can-eat fruits and vegetables and more hand-scratched meal offerings.

The Board of Education meeting on June 3 is set to start at 9:30 a.m. at the Board headquarters in Rockville (850 Hungerford Dr.).

Flickr photo by Tim Nagoogly

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