Money for Magnets: The MCPS Budget Battle

by Ted Jou '99

Last December, Superintendent Jerry Weast proposed a 2011 FY MCPS Budget that included significant cuts to the Magnet Program.  Having been hit hard by budget cuts in 2008, the Magnet community and advocates for other special programs spoke out against these cuts.  The voices were first heard at a community forum in October, where Magnet parents Bing Cai, Noemi Kedei, Dipak Oza, and Dan Shepherdson praised the Magnet program and asked the Board of Education for continued support.  In January, the Foundation began a letter-writing campaign to protest the proposed cuts.

The Superintendent's budget recommendation included two separate proposals for cuts.  In the Recommended 2011 FY Budget, Dr. Weast recommended a reduction of 5.0 full time teaching positions from high school special programs countywide.  (Page 1-26 of the pdf).  In a separate document entitled “Potential Budget Reductions” (pdf), Dr. Weast recommended even more drastic cuts, including a reduction of up to 12.9 teaching positions from special programs, a reduction or elimination of all funding for magnet buses countywide, and a reduction of stipends and other expenses for secondary school extracurricular activities countywide.

The proposed reductions to special programs teaching positions were only the latest round of cuts.  The Blair Magnet lost some of its best teachers two years ago, when the number of these teaching positions was reduced by nearly 10% (from 70.4 to 63.8).  Last year, the number was reduced again, by 20% (from 63.8 to 50.6), and Magnet teachers have been covering more classes than they ever had before.  The proposed cut would reduce the teaching staff by another 10% (50.6 to 45.6), with the "potential" cuts taking it all the way down to just barely half of the teaching positions (37.7) that were funded in 2008.  These cuts were drastic, and while it was unclear how they would affect the Blair Magnet, the trend was alarming, and the Magnet Foundation focused on these cuts in its letter to the Board of Education.

The cuts to Magnet buses sparked the greatest response from the broader community.  Parents and students wrote to the Board of Education in large numbers to protest these cuts to transportation, which would have affected over 4,000 students in high school, middle school, and elementary school magnet programs.  Protesters attended Board of Education meetings wearing yellow t-shirts in support of the buses, and magnet communities from Blair and Richard Montgomery, Takoma Park, Eastern, and Clemente Middle Schools, and all of the highly gifted elementary centers united in opposition to these cuts.  Parents wrote letters to the editor of the Gazette in January and in March.

Many Magnet parents wrote letters directly to the Board of Education and the County Council.  David Argue called the magnet programs "MCPS’s crown jewels."  Eric Marx testified that there are "no other appropriate educational options within MCPS, no other alternative to having their unique academic needs ignored in local schools with no real advanced curricula or intellectual peer grouping."  Robert and Cynthia Strouse wrote: "This is a special, needy population. They are special in a different way than you typically use this term. They are needy in a different way than you typically use this term. They are special and needy all the same."  Mark Gross told the Board about his son at Blair: "He's challenged, he's learning, and he's excited about school."  Sharon Goodall warned that "in the long run, our society will suffer, as these students will miss developing to their full potential as outstanding contributors to our society."  Beth Kaufman wrote: "I know these are tough times, but a prudent family stops eating restaurant meals and turns off its cable service before it stops feeding the children.  A prudent school board should do the same."

It's not clear whether the message got through to the Board of Education, and Silverchips reported recently that the budget cuts will likely affect the teaching staff at Blair, although there are no planned cuts to the Magnet teaching staff.  School Board member Judy Docca told the Gazette regarding that cuts to busing that "I really hope we don't have to go there ... This one would really close down some of our most effective programs for some of our brightest students."  The good news is that the budget adopted by the Board of Education (pdf) does not include the most drastic cuts.

One obscure part of the budget may affect magnet teachers however, and that is the cut to extracurricular stipends.  Because of earlier budget cuts, Magnet teachers were no longer being paid to teach 8th period, but they still received stipends that treated 8th period like an extracurricular activity like coaching the football team.  The County plans to cut those stipends, and the 8th period funding may be the first to go.  The Magnet hopes to get that funding from other sources in the County budget, but money will be tight.  The County Council has sought a waiver from the state legislature to enact the budget cuts, and the School Board has endorsed the plan

The County Council will hold public hearings on the budget April 5-8 (You can sign up to speak).  Committees will work on the budget through April and May, and a final budget will be approved on May 27th.  Cuts to Montgomery County Public Schools may be unavoidable, but hopefully, the voices of the Magnet community will help our program avoid the worst of it.