07 June 2010

Since we're talking about the schools in my hometown...

The Washington Post | A tale of two counties

Montgomery County has just completed a nightmarish budget year. Stressed, squabbling and besieged elected officials savaged services and programs and jacked up taxes to eliminate an eye-popping deficit of almost $1 billion in a $4.3 billion spending plan. Meanwhile, across the Potomac River in Fairfax County, all was sweetness and light by comparison. With a budget roughly equal to Montgomery's, Fairfax officials erased a deficit a quarter as large with relative ease and far less drama. [...]

The region's two largest jurisdictions -- demographic cousins with populations around 1 million, school systems among the nation's biggest and best, and public spending equal to that of small countries -- have parted ways. To put it bluntly, Montgomery is lurching under the weight of irresponsible governance, unsustainable commitments and political spinelessness -- particularly in the face of politically powerful public employees unions. [...]

Take a snapshot of one year, 2006, when times were flush. In Fairfax, the county executive, an unelected technocrat, proposed a budget with a relatively robust spending increase of about 6 percent. In Montgomery, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a career politician then running in the Democratic primary for governor, pitched a gold-plated, pork-laden grab bag of political largess that drove county spending up by 11 percent.

Mr. Duncan's budget that year capped a three-year spree in which county spending rose by almost 30 percent. It reflected major multiyear increases in pay and benefits that he had negotiated for police, firefighters and other county workers. At the same time, Jerry D. Weast, Montgomery's schools superintendent, negotiated a contract that promised pay increases for most teachers of 26 to 29 percent over three years -- about twice the raise Fairfax teachers got -- plus health benefits virtually unmatched in the region. Montgomery County Council members, most of whom were hoping for union endorsements in the fall elections, rubber-stamped Mr. Duncan's contracts. The Board of Education, equally beholden to the teachers union, did the same for Mr. Weast. [...]

The average teacher salary in Montgomery today is $76,483, the highest in the region. Average pay for teachers is now almost 20 percent higher in Montgomery than in Fairfax and has increased much faster than in most local suburban school systems. Since 2000, salaries for Montgomery teachers, as for many other county employees, have nearly doubled, rising at almost triple the rate of inflation.
There has been lots of talk in Montgomery County in the last couple of years about "slashing budgets" and "starvation budgets" and "austerity." No one ever points out that — at the most extreme — rolling budgets back to where they were in 2003 or so, before screw-ups like Doug Duncan fattened everything up. MoCo in 2003 was hardly a terrible place to live; rolling back the clock to 2003 is not an unbearable hardship.

The Post mentions this obliquely, but getting the endorsement of the teachers unions is a de facto requirement for election to county government.  (Our school system is county-wide; there are a handful of local municipal governments, but they're small fish.  The county wields the power.)  IIRC, when I was in high school there was not a single member of the school board or county council who was not endorsed by the local NEA.

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