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County exams school budget again

countycouncilROCKVILLE – After discussing the school system’s operating budget last week, the Montgomery County Council education committee again met with officials from Montgomery County Public Schools and the Board of Education to discuss the capital improvements projects budget.

The Board of Education requested $14.2 million in additional funding for fiscal year 2014 for three projects, but County Executive Ike Leggett did not recommend the requested funding in his budget. Leggett actually recommends reductions of $5 million over the next four years for a total reduction of $20 million.

One of the projects in most need of funding is the replacement of heating and air conditioning systems, said Patricia O’Neill, a Board of Education member. The Board requested $11.46 million which would add another nine projects to the list of projects for 2014. 

“When we have aging infrastructure, these are not off the shelf parts that you can just replace quickly,” O’Neill said. “Metaphorically speaking, some of our aging systems are held together with chewing gum and banding wire. You never know when those systems will fail.”

James Song, director of the Department of Facilities Management for MCPS, said there is a backlog of $160 million, which to eliminate would require $28 million per through the next 10 years.

Councilman Craig Rice said he understands the fiscal constraints the county has to deal with, but something has to be done to help repair the systems and protect children. Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, chair of the education committee, said there is a compelling argument for providing funding for the replacement of heating and air conditioning systems.

“You can’t have kids in classrooms when it is hot,” Ervin said. “You want the physical climate to be working well so I think that promotes good teaching and learning.”

The committee did agree to add $220,000 to MCPS’ facility planning project to support the planning of 5-7 school projects in order to keep pace with growing enrollment. The other funding the committee discussed was for planned lifecycle asset replacement (PLAR) which allows MCPS to address aging building components such as fire alarms, floors, ceilings and many others.

The problem the committee must address, Ervin said, is to find a balance with providing money for PLAR and providing funding for heating and air conditioning. Instead of making a decision on Monday, Ervin asked the county staff to work with the Leggett’s office and the Board of Education to figure out a plan to bring before the committee at a later date.

A final issue, which Councilman Phil Andrews brought to attention, is the county is not receiving enough money from the state legislature for the number of students it has. Andrews said MCPS will only be receiving 11 percent of the funding the state is providing for school construction while the county provides 17 percent of the students in Maryland. In response to Andrews’ observations, Ervin asked the Board of Education to maintain contact with local state legislators.

“We are falling under the burden of (the General Assembly) not doing the right thing,” Ervin said. “We are not going to keep pace this way.”

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