In County Executive Isiah Leggett’s $4.97 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2015, he offers Montgomery County Public Schools $1.5 billion in county money. By Maryland law, a county must pay its school system at least the same amount, per pupil, year to year — the so-called maintenance of effort law.
The Leggett budget proposal ends up with $26 million more than state funding minimums. That means, if the budget passes, the county has a new floor for school funding. It’s not just an increase for current taxpayers, but an increase that future taxpayers have to carry as well.
The school system will argue that it needs that $26 million. In fact, the Montgomery County Board of Education says it needs $15 million on top of that. But lay aside the question of need, and instead focus directly on the question of policy.
Crafted 30 years ago, maintenance of effort prevents the state’s 24 jurisdictions from collecting state education aid, then reshuffling those dollars so the money ends up paying for some other program.
But all those years ago, recessions never came with capital R’s. Though the economy always has had stretches of anemic growth, no one could foresee a bust in housing, which fuels the majority of local government revenue.
So, as a matter of running a government, maintenance of effort takes education out of the discussion when leaders need to weigh priorities. Granted, no one can dream of a time when educating our children won’t be a major priority. Then again, no one could foresee a time when owning a home wasn’t a good investment.
On this side of the Great Recession, maybe Montgomery County should be more gun-shy in how it commits its public money.
Sure, Montgomery has a highly ranked school system. Its teachers are first rate, and the test scores are better than most. But Leggett’s budget — presented during an election year — isn’t just spending the money of this year’s taxpayers. He’s spending future generations’ money.