There needs to be one Montgomery County.
Members of the Montgomery County Council and school board agreed to that Monday, but not much else.
Budget issues over the past few years have increased the tension and lowered the trust between the two groups, creating a “two-Montgomery system,” the elected officials said at a joint meeting of the council’s government operations and education committees Monday.
The meeting centered on an Oct. 16 report from the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight that brought up a touchy subject between the groups — the school board’s decision this year to give employees base salary bumps. The council argues the money should have been spent to decrease class size, or add back positions.
The report focused on how the county, in compliance with state law, will have to divert funding from its other agencies to fund education next fiscal year.
Board Vice President Christopher Barclay and Councilwoman Valerie Ervin talked over one another during the meeting. Ervin said there needs to be more truth going forward, and Councilwoman Nancy Navarro said everyone needed to get serious and “act like grownups.”
Because the report looked at the board’s budget as “sucking resources away from other county services,” it hurts the one-Montgomery system, said Barclay, who said he was speaking on behalf of himself and not the full board.
“The idea of having a single county that deals with family needs I believe gets lost in that because it does create competition,” Barclay said.
Board President Shirley Brandman argued a claim in the report that due to changes in the maintenance of effort law, the county’s obligations to fund education were permanently irreversible. The law requires the county to fund the school system at least the same per-pupil amount each year.
If the council was to work with the school board as it has in the past, the groups could request a waiver from the state that would re-base the budget, she said.
Council members indicated that the school board would not be willing to agree to a waiver.
Councilman Hans Riemer said that, unlike in the past, the school system now has no fiscal incentive to work with the council. The law changed so that the state has the power to divert county income tax revenue to local schools if the county does not fund the schools adequately.
Brandman said the school board does have an incentive, as they want the best for the county and its children, in and out of school.
It is critical that the council and the school board find a way to work with one another, said state Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village, who was on the school board from 1994 to 2002.
“I think it is called communication,” King said in an interview Friday. “When I was on the school board we worked very, very closely with the council.”
King wrote a letter to council President Roger Berliner on Oct. 17 explaining that the new waiver process did not bind the county, and that collaboration between state and local officials is needed.
“Open communication and continued collaboration are the best means for accomplishing any goal,” she said.
Councilman Craig Rice said that the relationship between the council and school board has to be even more open than before, because of the law.
“We need to be behind the curtain with you to understand what the workings are, because this new law has forced us to be there,” Rice said.
Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said at a school board meeting later that he is hoping that the county can focus on the future, not the past.
“We need a very big windshield and a very small rearview mirror,” Starr said.