ROCKVILLE – The Montgomery County Council president said reducing the achievement gap among public school students was a major part of the council’s budget but she did not explain how the council would spend money to address it.
County Council President Nancy Floreen (D) referred to a letter she said Montgomery County Public Schools chairman Michael Durso (District 5) wrote in which he explained how the board would address the gap in academic performance between different groups of students.
“The detail is in Mr. Durso’s letter and it hasn’t been fully spelled out yet,” said Floreen.
Durso said lowering class sizes and addressing the achievement gap were two priorities of the budget for MCPS. He declined to specify how the board would spend money to lower the achievement gap.
“All of it is intertwined,” said Durso. “The achievement gap is complex.”
County Council member Craig Rice (D-2) said the Fiscal Year 2017 budget covers several initiatives to help close the achievement gap.
$1· hiring additional staff to support underperforming students;
$1· paying for more Chromebook for students to use in classes;
$1· adding money to Achieving College Excellence and Success, a program to prepare students for college, to two high schools; and
$1· adding money to the Achieving the Promise Initiative, which will supply faculty mentors and coaches to students to help reach goals in education and said these would lower the achievement gap for 640 students.
The budget features $2.7 million for a technology modernization program that includes the Chromebook initiative.
“This year’s operating budget includes $36 million in programmatic enhancements that include critical areas such as: increased number of teachers to reduce class size, additional Chromebooks and more counselors, para-educators and focus teachers,” said Rice.
Floreen dubbed the Fiscal Year 2017 budget the “education first” budget, marking the first time in seven years the County Council funded MCPS more than its state-mandated minimum requirement.
That minimum level is called the Maintenance of Effort. It means MCPS must spend the same amount of money per student each year.
Floreen said the Council reached an agreement with the Board of Education because the two entities share “many core goals.”
“These goals include closing the educational achievement gap, reducing class size, making decisions that are both achievable in the short term and sustainable over time, and ensuring that residents see results for any additional investments we ask them to make,” said Floreen.
Durso said some schools’ class sizes will not be affected by the additional teachers MCPS will hire.
According to County spokesperson Neil Greenberger, the top item on the list of how the Council’s budget for education would be spent was to reduce class size “by two students in many schools.”
Durso said lowering all schools by two students would be an exaggeration.
“If every school got one teacher- that’s more than 200 (teachers),” said Durso, later adding, “(There are) some targeted areas where class size is going to be addressed but it would be erroneous to assume that every class in every school in Montgomery County is going to be smaller than it is now.”
Durso said he thought the Council understood for the first time in seven years MCPS’ need for more funding.
“The board and the Council reached an agreement where we feel we have addressed significantly our school needs,” said Durso.
While the Council agreed to fund MCPS Board of Education’s budget beyond state requirements, the president asked Durso not to spend it on pre-negotiated pay step increases for MCPS employees.
“If (the Board members) spend more money, we want it (spent) on other things,” said Floreen.
The money the Council agreed to give the Board of Education includes$58.7 million for local contribution to state retirement for teachers, required by the General Assembly since 2012.
That is a $7.9 million increase from Fiscal Year 2016.
The MCPS interim superintendent’s recommendation for the budget included approximately $1 million on professional development in literacy and mathematics, according to the recommended budget from December.
Durso described the budget negotiation process with the Council as “positive” because the Council funded MCPS more than Maintenance of Effort, which it had not done since 2009.
“Ninety-million (dollars) never happened before; I’m not sure it will happen again,” said Durso.
Board member Chris Barclay (District 4) said he thought hiring additional teachers was the most important choice the Board made to lower the achievement gap.
“(It’s) increasing the number of teachers for hire. Get class size down. That gives teachers room to focus more on the kids that are in front of them,” Barclay said.
Barclay said people who ask for an explanation of what MCPS will do are misunderstanding the problem.
“I think folks want a very simplified answer that there is a program that is like a pill that schools can take, and that is not the reality that schools can take (the pill) to improve across all the demographics,” said Barclay.
Barclay, like Durso and Floreen, declined to specify other ways MCPS would try to lower the achievement gap, and said the teacher increase was most important.
“I think a lot of folks have tried to locate the work on improving student achievement as a program,” said Barclay.
“It’s not the silver bullet program, and I think that everyone wants to think, if you want to improve the achievement gap, not all of it is going to hiring teachers,” Barclay later added.
MCPS Chief Operating Officer Andrew Zuckerman pointed out there are other costs related to hiring more teachers, including training in cultural proficiency and hiring for cultural diversity.
Zuckerman said the budget includes funding specifically for increasing teacher workforce diversity.
He said hiring a more diverse teacher workforce costs more than just hiring teachers due to “Increase in recruitment, partnerships, grow-your-own programs, all of that,” said Zuckerman.
Bowers said he believed County Executive Ike Leggett’s leadership was the main reason the Council approved a budget to fund MCPS more than the Maintenance of Effort, a minimum requirement set by the state for funding.
“I have to emphasize Ike Leggett has taken the lead on this for the past year, and that’s been critical,” said Bowers, later adding, “He’s been behind the scenes in Council and all of that, and he’s been critical and making this work, and that was really different than what’s happened in the past.”