Glass: Time to Reform School Budgeting Process

Montgomery County Council President Evan Glass offers views, from a county government perspective, on the challenges of funding schools based on limited input and information. He says, “It’s a frustration shared by many elected leaders across the state. We all want more detailed information about how school budgets are being spent and the results being achieved.”

Council President Glass submitted the following item as a “Letter to the Editor” at the MoCo360 site, managed by Montgomery County government but for broad readership. With the author’s permission, we include the piece in its entirety below.

The last three years have been difficult, especially for our children and teachers. Our schools have shouldered many of the burdens of the pandemic – from adapting to online learning to supporting the mental health of students and educators. The stress and pressure caused has been immeasurable.

As the product of a public education, I know that schools have a unique role in our communities. Our schools are more than just buildings for learning – they also serve as safe places where young people can get a warm meal and be their true and authentic selves.

Montgomery County Council President Evan Glass

Schools are also the lifeblood of Montgomery County. In addition to providing our children with the education and skills they need to succeed, the quality of our schools is the reason so many people choose to move here, which in turn supports our economy and our vibrant diversity.

Like districts across the nation, the needs of the 163,000 students in Maryland’s largest school system have dramatically increased since the pandemic.

In addition to making up the instructional time lost, students are also dealing with exacerbated mental health challenges and increasing rates of drug overdoses and acts of self-harm. The school system is also experiencing an increased number of students eligible for the free and reduced meal program, which is driven by increasing economic challenges at home.

Additionally, the expectations for administrators and educators to solve all these new challenges without adequate support is daunting.

To support the success of our students and educators, more than half of Montgomery County’s proposed $6.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2024, over $3 billion, is directed to Montgomery County Public Schools. The County Council is ultimately responsible for approving the budget.

Budgets are moral documents and a reflection of our shared values. Passing a budget of this size is also an exercise in fiscal discipline.

As I talk with parents, educators and residents, there is common agreement on the need to ensure that the money we allocate to Montgomery County Public Schools goes directly to reducing the size of our classrooms, hiring more educators, offering competitive wages, and expanding learning opportunities for all students.

These are our shared public education priorities.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to achieve these priorities because the process for distributing $3 billion across the school system is not transparent.

Under Maryland law, the council’s role is to appropriate funding for a dozen broad categories. Examples of these classifications include “administration,” “instructional salaries” and “student transportation.”

Once the county government writes a check to the school system, it is the responsibility of the Montgomery County Board of Education to oversee the use of these funds. The council does not have the authority to target spending within the broad funding categories for programmatic priorities.

This issue is not unique to Montgomery County. It’s a frustration shared by many elected leaders across the state. We all want more detailed information about how school budgets are being spent and the results being achieved. For true accountability, the fiscal authority and policy decisions need to be more closely tied together.

As local jurisdictions begin preparing to implement the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a statewide effort to transform public education into a world-class system, we must rethink how school budgets are funded.

One way to reimagine the process would be to change the state law and allow more transparency for policymakers and residents to see how their tax dollars are being spent. County officials and taxpayers deserve to see how funds are being allocated.

We need our leaders in Annapolis to work with county governments and school systems across the state to strengthen our ability to provide oversight and accountability. Providing us the authority to further open the school system’s fiscal books would be a good place to start.

Our children deserve nothing less.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties