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Posted at 12:08 AM ET, 10/13/2011

Three things to watch on Prince George’s school budget

Another difficult budget school debate is just around the corner in Prince George’s County.

On Oct. 19, the first public hearing for the budget that covers the next school year will start at 7 p.m. at the Sasscer Administration Building. It is the first step of monthslong process likely filled with passionate testimony and political wrangling over the future of the state’s second-largest school system. 

In Maryland, the school board approves a budget, filled with the minutia of how money will be spent. The county, and then the state also approve a bottom-line number for school spending. Then, the three entities negotiate until they arrive at the same bottom line number. All
Superintendent William R. Hite, Jr.(L) and Council member Samuel H. Dean(R) with students at Barack Obama ElementarySchool last year. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)
that needs to be finished by the summer.

To recap: Last school year, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. proposed a doom-and-gloom budget that would have severed major programs and cut more than 1,100 positions for the system. Those steps were necessary because federal stimulus dollars dried up, student enrollment is declining and the state and county governments seemed unwilling to cough up more cash. The state and county eventually provided more money, which was able to save many programs. Most of those proposed teacher reductions still occurred, including 347 teachers who took an early retirement package and 236 who were laid off. (Some were then re-hired by the school system to fill in critical-need areas).

Hite has said in the past that he wouldn’t expect budgeting to get any easier this year, so it will be interesting to see what the school board actually ends up cutting. Here are some things that parents and students might want to pay close attention to:

1.Will new programs be offered? And where?  

Last year, a proposal for a Chinese immersion program at Paint Branch Elementary in College Park was swatted down by the board. Parents at specialty schools banded together and convinced some board members that it was unjust for the system to invest in new programs while successful programs were suffering budget cuts. Other board members complained that too many programs were being offered in the northern part of the county while the south was being ignored. 

Reform is still the buzzword in education. In theory there’s still a willingness among parents and school administratators to provide an increasingly diverse set of offerings for students. Whether money can be allocated for such goals is yet to be determined.

2.What’s going to happen with transportation?

We have already seen this year how poor transportation service can affect a student’s classroom experience, as parents readily complained that a bus driver shortage led to overcrowded buses, longer routes and spotty service. 

Still, there is likely to be less funding for transportation - not more. Transportation costs now amount to 6 percent of the system’s $1.6 billion budget. Officials would love to have more of that money devoted to the classroom. A task force has been working to create a new system that is more effective and less expensive. Will their work be presented during this year? And what will the effect be?

3.Will teacher positions be cut?

This June, 161 teachers hired from overseas lost their jobs after the system was deemed a willful violator of federal labor laws. Hundreds more such foreign teachers will lose their jobs over the next two years and many of them specialized in hard-to-fill areas, such as math, science and foreign language.

The forced removal of those teachers, who came through a guest worker visa known as H1-B, incidentally allowed fewer layoffs during a tough budget season. Nonetheless, these teachers still beefed up the staff in those areas when the system could find no one qualified in the US of A to fill the positions. 

It will be interesting to see how the loss of foreign teachers will factor into the total number of teaching positions that the school system will try to cut, if there are any cuts at all.

By  |  12:08 AM ET, 10/13/2011

 
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