Members of the County Council say the schools superintendent and others appear to have deceived them about the amount of money they needed to operate, and are calling for an investigation into spending by Montgomery County Public Schools.The issue has led to distrust between the elected bodies that represent county government and the county's schools. At issue is whether school leaders hid surplus funds from the council -- which is the county government's final fiscal authority. One board member said the council could not be trusted to spend the extra money on schools.Now, Board of Education President Christopher S. Barclay says council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring has known since April that the school system had $14.5 million in surplus money for fiscal 2011 in a fund that pays for employee health care.Ervin denies the claim and said the council intends to investigate when the school board and Superintendent Jerry D. Weast became aware of the unspent money. Council members say they first learned of the surplus Friday.The school board's most recent financial report to the council on May 13 does not show savings from health benefits claims. When asked why that was the case, Larry Bowers, the school system's chief operating officer, said such surpluses in the trust fund used to pay employee health care claims typically are not identified in the financial reports. "I think it's a scandal," Ervin said. "It's kind of like lawlessness in a way. They're just making up numbers and giving them to us."Ervin and other county government officials were briefed April 15 about the $14.5 million in health care savings, Barclay said. "If the council president chose not to talk to her colleagues, I can't take responsibility for that," said Barclay (Dist. 4) of Takoma Park. "It was communicated to her."Ervin said she did meet with Barclay, Weast, council Vice President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac and council staff. During the meeting, Weast said the board would accept the level of funding for schools proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), perhaps by making changes in employee health care, she said. Neither Ervin nor Berliner recalled mention of a health care surplus at the meeting."I think they're scrambling for an explanation now," Ervin said of the board. Although Barclay has been the public face of the budget battle, Ervin said she thinks Weast is behind the latest controversy. "Jerry [Weast] knows that Chris [Barclay] doesn't understand any of this," Ervin said. "Chris has nothing to do with it really. He is just being used as the mouthpiece."The school system budgeted about $282 million in tax-supported money to the employees' health fund -- not including their contributions. But the expenses for the school system this year are expected to be $267 million. Several council members say the surplus -- made public by the county teachers union Friday after the County Council approved a fiscal 2012 spending plan that cut $18.7 million from the funding budgeted for school employees' benefits for 2012 -- appears fraudulent.Council members made the $18.7 million in cuts in an attempt to force the school system to make its employees pay more for health care, and several blasted the school system after the $14.5 million in savings were made public last week."Some people had always believed [Weast] was padding his budget," said Ervin, a former school board member. "Their budget numbers are bogus."But school officials argue the council should be happy the school system's health care costs are going down, which the council wants in the long term.They also deny they provided inaccurate budget numbers."I don't understand what the issue is there. We've saved the money," Bowers said.Bowers said the lower-than-projected health costs became clear by early spring, and that the school system tracks the numbers throughout the year.Doug Prouty, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, said Friday the school system's initiatives in recent years to improve employee health, such as a Wellness Program, have helped lower insurance claims. The school system's health programs include fitness and weight-loss initiatives. He also highlighted the fact that about two-thirds of school system employees were in lower-cost HMOs."I think it shows that the work that we've done to contain costs has yielded fruit for a number of years and continues to do so," Prouty said.But Councilman Marc Elrich had a different explanation."That means they lied about their budgetary needs," said Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park of the Board of Education. "They just discovered $18 million lying around? That's b------t."Prouty declined to say when he knew the school system discovered the savings.Savings from changes the school board made to the school system's pension system and retiree health benefits yielded $6.4 million and $300,000 in savings for fiscal 2012, making the total changes in employee benefits $21.2 million -- $2.5 million higher than the amount cut for benefits by the council. On Monday, Ervin sent a memo to Barclay asking what the board intends to do with the surplus funds. Bowers said the money will be put back into the employee health care fund, to be used in the future when necessary.However, the board also can make a request to the County Council that the money be reallocated to make up for spending cuts that affect classroom instruction.Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, who is a member of the council's education committee, said the council likely would approve such a request."The choice is whether to restore classroom programs or continue to have Montgomery County Public Schools employees pay less for health care than just about anyone else in the country," he said.Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park said budget analysts working for the council and within County Executive Isiah Leggett's (D) administration are not getting the information they need about schools spending.But Barclay said the school system already is audited annually by an independent agency every year, by the Maryland State Department of Education every two years, by the General Assembly and by the federal government."I find it disheartening that the council wants to force the board to make policy decisions vis-ŕ-vis the budget," he said.ecunningham@gazette.net, aujifusa@gazette.net