Anne Arundel Budget Debate Highlights “Different World” For Education

Among the six counties seeking a waiver from the state’s maintenance of effort funding level this year is Anne Arundel County, whose submitted request seeks relief of less than 2% of the specified funding amount. However, the underlying debate in that county serves to highlight the seemingly inevitable friction arising from difficult budget times.

From the Baltimore Sun’s coverage of the county’s waiver request, here is County Executive John Leopold speaking about the county’s changing budget:

“The maintenance formula needs to be reformed in order to account for counties that exceed maintenance of effort, such as Anne Arundel County has, Montgomery County has and other counties have,” said Leopold. He added that 20 years ago, the county’s Board of Education budget was 42 percent of the total county budget and that it is now more than 52 percent.

“We need not wait another 10 years for the Board of Education to take 62 percent of the budget,” Leopold said. “We need to take corrective action now. The Board of Education budget, while obviously … very important, is starving the other agencies of county government of the resources they need to maintain the quality of life that county residents expect.”

While strained budgets tend to have a wide range of components and challenges, many tend to focus on the most visible: employee salaries. And in this respect, the county budget circumstance provides a stark contrast. From the Baltimore Sun’s coverage of the County School Board’s February approval of the Superintendent’s proposed budget, here are some summary comments that illustrate the varying point of view from the School Board’s own membership:

The operating budget for fiscal year 2012 is $37.3 million more than the previous year’s budget. It funds negotiated agreements with unions, the system’s health care obligations and 20 mentor-teachers required to fulfill obligations associated with Race to the Top federal funding.
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After the meeting, board Chairwoman Patricia Nalley said she was pleased with the recommendations, which total $108,000 less than what Maxwell proposed in December. “I’m proud of what we’ve done,” she said.

The lone dissenter in the vote, board member Victor Bernson, argued that the budget is too similar to previous budgets he has reviewed in his five years on the board.

Bernson added, “This budget seeks $40 million in new spending, an increase of more than 4 percent. … This budget doesn’t even make a pretense of engaging in real honest cuts, nowhere. How can we ask for $40 million in new spending when we already know the county has no additional money to give?

“This board should not be asking for phantom pay and benefit increases, which we already know are impossible,” Bernson continued. “But rather, we should be a true partner with the county in searching diligently for greater efficiencies, economies of scale and making responsible decisions about changing compensation, especially health care benefits. I don’t believe we have a revenue problem; I believe we have a spending problem.

The proposed and approved school board budget for Anne Arundel County is available online here.

The county’s teacher union has opined on the matter as well, quickly suggesting that the proposed level of funding could lead to a shift from steps-plus-COLAs to layoffs. From their site:

The net result will be an actual reduction in school funding from this year of $9 to $10 million. It will leave the Board’s budget request underfunded by $47 million. Impact on employees will be unavoidable. Layoffs loom as a real possibility for the first time in many years.

The School Board in each county is required to submit a proposed budget for consideration by the county governing body (in Anne Arundel County, the County Executive and County Council, in that order chronologically). However, this proposed budget does not include any element of affordability or balance — the School Board does not have any structural obligation to present a budget to the county that connects in any fashion to projected revenues or other affordability measures.

The proposed step and salary increases in the school board’s budget reflect a substantial cost increase over the prior year’s budget. While the county was required to present a request for its maintenance of effort waiver for FY 2012 by the statutory deadline of April 1, the county executive does not present a proposed budget until April 15.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties

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