Statement on in-person learning at MCPS

Dear Resident,

As a parent and community leader I’m incredibly concerned about the negative impact that school closures and virtual learning have had on student mental health. I believe that schools should remain open for in-person instruction whenever and wherever possible, although I recognize that the learning process will be disrupted this month under any scenario.

All of our students have experienced losses of one kind or another over the last two years – social, emotional and academic. Unfortunately, data shows that some of our most vulnerable children – children from communities that were already facing enormous challenges before the pandemic – are the most heavily impacted by learning loss. That is heartbreaking to me.

But the good news is that we also know the vaccinations are exceptionally good at preventing serious illness from Covid. Although it still feels very bleak, I do think we’ve come a long way from where we were a year ago, and we’ve gotten better at certain aspects of controlling the virus.

We are going to get through this wave. It would be unrealistic to say there won’t be significant impacts to learning while we ride it out – no doubt we still have a ways to go.

But I think that now is the time as a community to come together on behalf of the long-term well being of our kids by trying to keep them in school as long as staffing is adequate.

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Reopening schools is my priority

Dear resident,

I want you to know that, while I strongly support the decision not to open MCPS this Fall, getting our children back into their classrooms is an urgent priority for me.

Research is showing very troubling signs about learning loss during COVID. We may spend years recovering. Opportunity gaps are intensifying and the most vulnerable children are paying the biggest price.

That’s why I voted against the Executive Branch’s recent decision to allow restaurants to serve alcohol to patrons indoors after 10pm, hours that are generally more for socializing than eating.

While the proposal did have some safeguards, I remain concerned that allowing indoor late night socializing can only result in more COVID cases and make it harder to reopen schools.

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A bright future for EVERY student

When young people organize for change, anything is possible. I know this having served as Barack Obama’s National Youth Vote Director as well as political director of Rock the Vote.

So when the MCPS students of the Minority Scholars Program invited me to join them for the March to Close the Achievement Gap, I attended — and I was inspired by their advocacy.

Our students are right. While MCPS is a superb school system by many measures, we know that there are disparities in educational outcomes according to race and income. A review of dropout rates, AP exams, SAT scores and other measures provides ample evidence that we are not achieving our goal of helping every child succeed.

A new County Council research report on high schools shows a large and growing achievement gap between schools in areas with significant poverty and schools in low-poverty areas.

We can do better. Montgomery County is blessed with experienced school leadership, great teachers, significant resources and a diverse population that values education. The county also invests hundreds of millions of dollars in health and human service initiatives that help children and families outside the classroom. When all of us get together – elected officials, parents, MCPS leadership and stakeholders throughout our county – we can figure out how to make this work.

What steps do we need to take? Here are some of my recommendations:

1. Fund new initiatives in MCPS that are intended to close the achievement gap, including more ESOL programs, incentives for teachers to stay in more challenged schools, smaller class sizes for challenged high schools, and more. These programs are in the MCPS budget that is pending before the County Council now and I support them.

2. Reduce concentrations of poverty in our county by promoting economic development for all of our communities. Families need jobs to thrive and the lack of high paying jobs in the East County has real consequences in the classroom. Concentrated poverty in our neighborhoods is the greatest threat to academic achievement in our schools.

3. Strengthen early childhood programs, in partnership with MCPS, to prevent the achievement gap from starting. Parents need affordable child care and children need to start kindergarten ready to learn. Our county has a long way to go on these issues.

As a parent of two young kids, the older of whom just started MCPS kindergarten, my passion for meeting these challenges is only growing. I want to hear from you and work with you to make sure that our county continues to become a better place to live for everyone.

The March to Close the Achievement Gap. Photo Credit: Dan Reed

Let’s build more classrooms

The County Council is now reviewing the capital budget for construction projects. Transit and roads, libraries, parks and much more are on the table.

My number one priority in our capital budget is school construction. Here’s why.

As both an MCPS Parent and a Montgomery County Councilmember, I see that enrollment growth and aging facilities in MCPS are causing us to fall behind. But we can fix this.

Between 2003 and 2013, MCPS enrollment grew by 12,000 students. According to the Board of Education, that’s the equivalent of 16 new elementary schools filled to capacity!

Our explosive growth is unique. We have added more new students than Anne Arundel, Charles, Frederick, and Howard counties combined. In fact, the rest of the state’s enrollment did not increase at all from 2003 to 2013.

By 2020, we expect to add another 11,000 students, on top of the 150,000 that we have today. Again, that will be the largest enrollment increase of any school district in Maryland.

The Montgomery County Government has responded by dramatically increasing construction funding for MCPS. The state, however, has not.

From Fiscal Year 2000 to 2014, Montgomery County’s local spending on school construction grew from $63 million to $210 million — while state spending fell from $50 million to $35 million.

The chart below shows just how small a share of our school construction money now comes from the state. And even though we have 17% of the state’s students, we only get about 11% of the state’s construction funds.

We are all working hard to turn this around. For local dollars, the County Executive has recommended an increase of $129 million over the next six years for school construction, which I support. That will result in a record amount of local financing of school construction.

For state dollars, our Montgomery County state Senators and Delegates along with MCPS leadership, the PTAs, the County Executive, and the County Council are asking the state to support a special school construction financing package that will help us meet the surge in enrollment.

Bottom line: we need your voice to get this done.

So here’s what you can do. Send an email to the top state leaders and tell them WHY we need to build more classrooms in Montgomery County.

Governor Martin O’Malley – Lt. Governor Anthony Brown – Senate President Mike Miller – House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch –

Thank you for reading and taking action. Let’s make this happen

On the Governor’s Budget and Teacher Pensions

The Governor has released his budget for Fiscal Year 2013. There is no question that the state is in a tough spot and the Governor had to make some tough choices. He and the General Assembly have to figure out how to close a billion-dollar deficit in a $15 billion general fund budget. The Governor is proposing to close the gap through a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, none of which will be popular. Many state and local governments have had to make similar adjustments over the last few years, including Montgomery County.

Nevertheless, one proposal of the Governor’s warrants concern: he would like to shift part of the responsibility of paying teacher pensions from the state to the counties. This would cause great harm to Montgomery County.

For several decades, the state has assumed the responsibility of providing for teacher pensions as a way to help the counties afford competitive salaries for teachers. This system has worked well for many years, and it is partly responsible for Maryland’s public schools being named first in the nation four years in a row.

However, a few things have changed over the last decade. In 2002, the state began underpaying its contributions to its pension fund by $100-200 million a year. As a result, the percentage of future pension liabilities the state could afford to pay dropped from 101% in Fiscal Year 2000 to 79% in 2008. Then, the stock market crash drove the state’s funding ratio down even further, to 64% in 2010. The state’s overpayments to mediocre investment advisors did not help. Much of the damage to the pension fund was self-inflicted.

Nevertheless, this past year the state continued its pattern, this time raising contributions from teachers to pay for benefits while simultaneously cutting its required contributions to the fund by $120 million.

Now the state wants the counties to fix the problems it caused by passing the buck for its mistakes. They want the counties to pick up a large part of the bill.

That’s wrong, plain and simple.

Under the Governor’s plan, the counties would have to pay half of the state’s teacher pension costs: a new mandate totaling $239 million. Montgomery County’s share of that liability will start at $41 million next year and will rise steeply thereafter. The county simply cannot afford this new permanent liability. If we have to pay it, other programs – including the schools – may have to take cuts If the state forces us to raise taxes to pay it, the county’s economy will suffer. Either way, Montgomery County residents will be unfairly punished for the state’s inability to deal with its problems.

The County Executive and the County Council are unified in opposing this plan. We are working with our state legislators to stop it. If you can add your voice to ours and weigh in with our state legislators, we have a chance to win.

I’ll be in touch as we learn more.

Hans Riemer

Council Member At-Large