MCPS’s budget is failing its students

Feb. 1, 2023, 1:11 p.m. | By Alexander Liu | 1 year, 5 months ago

The county continues to squander money in all the wrong places

MCPS spending its money Photo courtesy of Sarah Zhang.

How much money do you think Montgomery County Public Schools spends each year? $500 million? $1 billion? Wrong. MCPS Superintendent Dr. Monifa B. McKnight recently prepared a MCPS budget recommendation for $3.2 billion for the fiscal year 2024. To put that number into perspective, it places MCPS’s budget on par with the GDP of small countries like Andorra

With a budget larger than 30 UN-recognized countries, MCPS is more than capable of funding basic programs like free lunches for students. Instead, MCPS has decided to invest their funds on easy news-worthy wins, which at the end of the day, won’t help students learn. 

Wasteful Spending

Whether it’s spending $40 million for boxlight screens or $5.2 million for bus-tracking software that already exists, it's clear that MCPS pays no heed to the return on its multi-million dollar investments. 

For example, MCPS recently purchased new Lenovo Chromebooks for students, regardless of whether or not students actually needed a new Chromebook. Many students, like junior Alexander Groen, received replacements from the school districts despite having working Chromebooks. “Necessary? No.” said Groen when asked about the recent Chromebook replacements. 

With the federal government’s coronavirus relief running dry, that money is now coming directly out of MCPS’s pockets. MCPS is on track to spend $7 million on Chromebooks alone in FY2024, with a nearly five times increase in the funding allocated for the “Department of Digital Innovation since FY2023.

Unfortunately, even the recent Chromebook purchases are insignificant compared to MCPS’s most expensive project in major years: electric buses. In 2022, MCPS announced plans to electrify their bus fleet to applause from news stations all over the country. On the surface, that sounds like a great way for MCPS to modernize their bus fleets while cutting back on emissions.  

Unfortunately, that misses the key problem with electric buses: they’re terribly expensive. Costing between $370,000 to $380,000 per bus, electric buses are an enormous upfront investment being over twice as expensive as normal diesel buses. MCPS is spending over $167 million dollars to electrify a mere 326 buses, only representing about a fourth of all the county’s buses. 

Unfortunately, MCPS is unlikely to see any major emissions reductions for that massive investment. Transportation emissions make up a mere 19% MCPS’s total emissions, with the overwhelming majority coming from electricity and natural gas to power schools. Even in the best case scenario, MCPS will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on expensive bus upgrades while emitting practically the same amount as before. If MCPS truly wanted to cut emissions, they would invest their millions in alternative power sources.

Still it’s only right to first give MCPS credit for what they’ve done right. Their recent decision to cover the cost of AP and IB exams is a great way to increase access to higher level courses for all students, and their increased focus on younger students will be key for addressing the decrease in learning experienced over the pandemic. 

Unaddressed problems

While AP and funding for younger children is a step in the key direction, the county is still not funding vital programs such as free school lunches or renovating old school buildings. 

Before the pandemic, MCPS families owed more than $400,000 in meal debt alone, with estimates that unless MCPS extended their free lunches from the pandemic, over 10,000 MCPS families would fall back into debt. Despite that, MCPS stopped providing free meals after federal funding ran dry despite its multi-billion dollar budget. 

The current tiered system for free meals is also highly problematic, as many families that need support are unable to qualify for FARMS based aid. That’s key, as study after study has shown that providing free meals not only reduces food insecurity, but also boosts students’ academic achievement. 

MCPS is also more than able to pay for the program. As MCPS Communications Director said, MCPS would need only $24.1 million to provide universal free meals. That’s less than one percent of MCPS’s budget to ensure students avoid hunger and are able to concentrate on learning. 

Renovations in MCPS tell a similar story. Thomas S. Wootton, a high school built during the height of the cold war has not had a single renovation in its 53 year history. Renovations have been delayed ever since 2013, with MCPS citing “ fiscal constraints” as the reason. This isn’t an isolated incident either. Other key renovation projects were delayed for years as MCPS “struggled” to get the funding necessary. 

MCPS undoubtedly has the money to fix these issues. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on fancy electric buses and Chromebooks, MCPS should provide free meals and renovate aging school buildings to ensure students have a safe environment for learning. 

Last updated: Feb. 1, 2023, 1:14 p.m.

Alexander Liu. Hi, I'm Alex (he/him) and I'll be a staff writer for SCO this year. I'm passionate about public policy and international relations. In my free time, I enjoy drawing and watching terrible rom-coms. More »

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Jackie — 1 year, 5 months ago

Excellent piece of writing. I predict a successful career in writing and/or public policy. Congrats also to this kids teacher.

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