With work sessions and a budget hearing on the calendar for January, progress is being made toward finalizing school superintendent Monifa McKnight’s $3.15 billion recommended operating budget. While Board of Education members have yet to publicly offer an opinion on the proposed budget introduced Dec. 19, the county teachers’ union has raised several points of contention.
McKnight’s budget represents an 8% increase over the previous year. The Montgomery County Education Association reacted to the budget in a press release, saying “many needs” are not fully addressed—including salary increases, student meal fares and costs for field trips.
Amid a recent influx of hate crimes and related attacks across the county, MCEA president Jennifer Martin said what residents may not realize is that “there’s a soft bigotry in the way we’ve been failing to fund our schools.”
Not only are students of color the majority within Montgomery County Public Schools, but Martin said the county is seeing increased need for special education and English language services.
“To see that per-pupil funding is not keeping up with where we were even 10 years ago is shameful,” she said. “It’s shameful that we’re not investing in what’s needed to meet the needs of our students.”
Going into the new year with a new superintendent, a new County Council and new school board members, Martin said she believes the county has a real opportunity to “push the leadership toward a reinvestment in our schools.”
To address issues of equity and food security, the union is pushing for universal free meals to be offered across MCPS schools.
The current proportion of students within MCPS approved to receive Free and Reduced Price Meals, or FARMS, is 38.3%, according to data provided by MCPS communications director Jessica Baxter. That translates to approximately 61,000 public school students.
“It’s important to note that school meals are primarily funded through the federal government,” Baxter wrote to Bethesda Beat. “The state of Maryland passed legislation in 2018 which covers the copay that reduced what eligible students will usually pay.”
Currently, 17 high FARMS schools out of 209 total schools within MCPS receive funding to provide all students with free meals, regardless of family income status. Those schools include Broad Acres, Georgian Forest, Kemp Mill and Gaithersburg Elementary Schools.
All student participants in the district’s early childhood education program, which includes both Head Start and pre-K, are also eligible to receive free school meals.
School meal prices are standardized across the district. Elementary students pay $1.30 for breakfast and $2.55 for lunch, while secondary school students pay an additional 25 cents for lunch, according to Baxter.
The total allotted food services budget is $68.1 million for fiscal year 2024. Government funds at the state and national levels cover approximately $44 million of that figure, and the additional $24.1 million comes from meal sales. Baxter said this means MCPS would need $24.1 million to provide universal free meals.
Out of a $3 billion school budget, Martin said $24.1 million “is a very small proportion of school expenditures” and one she believes “would be money very wisely spent.”
“We know hungry students are not in a position to be ready to learn,” she added.
Baxter said quantifying the cost of field trips is trickier because those activities are optional supplements to the core curriculum and are often planned at the individual school, program or even teacher level. Martin pointed out that the sporadic nature of field trips means funding would be significantly less than the cost of universal meals, calling it “a real issue of equity and access.”
The board conducted a work session on Tuesday regarding the recommended budget. Discussion touched on funding for staff salaries, the effects of inflation, tutoring opportunities, special education and multilingual learning. Two more budget work sessions will be held on Jan. 18 and 24.
Board of education member Rebecca Smondrowski told Bethesda Beat prior to the work session that she looks forward to receiving feedback on it from the school administration and the local community.
“It is too early in the process to say where I might see adjustments being made,” she wrote in a Jan. 6 email. “We have a robust community engagement component to the process, because it informs the Board on where the community believes adjustments need to be made.”
She added, “There is always more to do, particularly, as we have students who come to school with a myriad of needs.”
The board is holding its first of two public budget hearings at 6 p.m. on Wednesday where it will receive testimony from community members. Board member Brenda Wolff (Dist. 5) told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that she is not ready to provide public comment on the budget until after all three work sessions and both budget hearings are complete.
The budget is set to be finalized by the board Feb. 7.