How to Avoid Layoffs or Furloughs in MCPS, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

MCPS is preparing to implement draconian personnel measures, which may include layoffs or furloughs. Such actions would harm morale, recruitment and retention in the school system and damage Montgomery County’s reputation. There must be a way out.

And there it is. In part one, I laid out four major problems in solving this mess. Here are a few ideas about solutions.

Problem one: MCPS has a short-term problem in its budget.

Solution: The municipality could introduce a special credit as a temporary solution, but this must be accompanied by other measures.

MCPS received $31 million less than it requested from the county council, causing the current budget problems. There’s nothing unusual about it receiving less than the request, but for whatever reason the system is having a hard time dealing with it this year. The amount needed to avoid layoffs or furloughs is less than $31 million. I bet it’s closer to a quarter or a third of that. The province’s recently approved FY25 budget provides for a reserve level of 10.8%, above the 10% target, so if the money in question is what I think it is, it won’t put a hole in our reserves .

However, this shouldn’t be free money as I have other suggestions to guide this. And what about the state’s enforcement of the effort law, which — under normal circumstances — would put this permanently in MCPS’s budget base? Keep reading.

Problem two: The county council does not trust MCPS’s budget figures.

Solution: The council should conduct its Office of Legislative Oversight audit MCPS.

Council complaints about MCPS budget transparency have become more abundant than grass in a field. Well, the council should do more than complain; he should send his think tank, the Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO). OLO has done invaluable work on budget issues during and after the Great Recession, including analyzes of structural budget issues, the cost of MCPS benefits, and sustaining efforts. Like it or not, it’s a logical candidate to look at in MCPS’ budget.

Here’s a question. MCPS’s approved budget for FY25 is $31 million less than the request. However, it fell short by $49 million in FY21, $42 million in FY23 and $51 million in FY24. MCPS hasn’t resorted to layoffs or furloughs in any of those other years, so why now? OLO should find out.

Another question. Every year, MCPS experiences employee turnover, with new hires replacing departing employees. How much money can be saved by adjusting the pace of new hires? And what are the implications of that strategy for class size? OLO should also investigate that.

More broadly, the OLO should identify the cost drivers in the MCPS budget, calculate whether the county’s existing revenue growth can afford them, and present options if they don’t pan out. And this all needs to happen before the next superintendent’s budget is recommended next winter.

I can still hear the OLO analysts whining about this, but I know they are up to the task. That has to be the case, because although the council does not have confidence in MCPS, it does have confidence in OLO. The council will take its findings seriously.

Problem Three: State enforcement of the effort law prevents flexibility in helping MCPS.

Solution 1: The law offers a way out through agreement with the school board.

Solution 2: The county’s delegation of state legislators can assist with local legislation if necessary.

In general, the state’s Conservation Effort (MOE) law means that the local per-pupil contribution to a county’s schools is the floor for years to come. That floor can rise, raising the base, but a county can only drop below it if it receives a waiver from the State Board of Education. This has the detrimental effect of preventing short-term adjustments that are often applied to other parts of provincial government.

However, the MOE Act includes this language in MD. Education Code § 5-235 (2023):

(i)(1) This subsection applies to a county that applies for a waiver under subsection (h)(1)(ii) of this section.

(2)(i) The State Council shall grant a waiver request for the amount agreed upon by the county and the provincial government attributable to the reduction in recurring costs.

(ii) If the reduction in recurring costs includes reductions in personnel or personnel costs, the State Council shall grant a waiver request in the amount mutually agreed upon by the province, the district government and the exclusive employee representative.

(3) The amount of the agreed waiver may be less than the full amount of the reduction in recurring costs.

(4) The amount of the agreed waiver may not:

(i) Exceed the full amount of the recurring charge reduction; or

(ii) Reduce a county’s education appropriations below the amount required in subsection (a)(1) of this section.

This language sets the stage for an agreement involving the county, school board and possibly unions on any special allocations. The school system would receive enough money to avoid layoffs or furloughs. In return, the school board and unions (if required by law) must support a potential MOE waiver excluding that amount from the base. This may be considered unnecessary in the future, but it is a reasonable deal for all parties to implement now.

If that doesn’t work, the state delegation could introduce a local bill excluding the special credits from the MOE base. That is within the delegation’s power, as it exempted the province from a state MOE fine through a local bill in 2010.

Problem four: MCPS has a terrible labor-management relationship.

Solution: The unions should be given ex officio non-voting seats on the school board.

One of the biggest and most problematic changes I have seen at MCPS over the years is the disastrous deterioration of labor-management relations. That was a strong point under former Superintendent Jerry Weast (1999-2011). Since his departure, the relationship has deteriorated until it reached a toxic low under ousted Superintendent Monifa McKnight. That’s a huge barrier to collaboration, innovation and building a positive work environment for employees. For the good of the order, reasonable relations between labor and management must be restored.

One of the biggest complaints of the labor market, especially MCEA, is the lack of transparency of the school system. This can be remedied by giving the three unions – MCEA, SEIU Local 500 and MCAAP (the supervisors) – ex officio non-voting seats on the school board. These seats should be excluded from any role in pay, working conditions, collective bargaining and staff appointments due to the potential for obvious conflict. But otherwise, the holders of these seats should be entitled to the same information as all other school board members. This arrangement would help institutionalize the kind of cooperation from Weast that has been sadly lacking for years now.

Imagine how management would behave if it knew it had to share information with labor. And imagine how the labor movement would behave if it no longer had to fight to find out what was going on. I bet this would have a taming effect on both sides.

Yes, this would be unusual in Maryland, where students serve on school boards but not on employee organizations. But it is common for companies in Europe to allocate board seats to employee representatives. And when I worked in the labor movement, my general president held a board seat at one of our largest union contractors. Why not pass a state law establishing this in Montgomery County on a trial basis and see how it works? It’s far preferable to the sight of MCPS employees banging on hearing room doors with megaphones to get in.

I understand that this package is heavy and that it contains elements that will displease everyone.

I understand that it will take uncommon courage, skill and vision to make this happen.

And I understand the risks.

But think of the alternative. If our current trajectory continues, we could face years of finger-pointing, budget headaches, distrust, employee dislocation, and—ultimately—school decline. And what would that look like during the next recession, when the country no longer has large reserves and easy sales growth? What then?

Whether it comes through these ideas or others, the problems at MCPS and in the provincial government can be solved. Let’s get started.