Housing Downturn Squeezing Schools

By Nelson Hernandez and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The rapid cooling of the Washington area's real estate market has hit school systems with force, abruptly ending years of plenty and compelling superintendents to ask their teachers, bus drivers and custodians to do more with less.

At Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, parents fear cuts in Montgomery County's proposed $2.1 billion budget will threaten the math-science magnet program. In Fairfax County, one of the largest and wealthiest systems in the country, School Board members have questioned the superintendent's plan to pass on activity and testing fees to students, one of many cost-cutting measures in his $2.3 billion budget proposal.

The financial hard times are even more visible in jurisdictions with less money to draw on. In Prince George's County, no money for teachers' raises is available in the proposed $1.67 billion budget, and an ambitious program to create schools that run from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade is on hold. In the District, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee have faced heavy resistance to a proposal to close 23 schools, a measure Fenty has said could save $23.6 million.

Because school systems rely mainly on state and county government funding, and those governments draw most of their revenue from property taxes, a regional 7.7 percent drop in home values during the third quarter of last year has stopped the rapid growth of education budgets. And as can be seen with jittery stock markets across the world, it is unclear whether the storm is over.

For school administrators, the economic instability could not have happened at a worse time. The federal No Child Left Behind law, with its mandate that all students show proficiency in reading and math by 2014, threatens schools that fail to comply with restructuring and state takeover. The burden of meeting the law's demands is taken so seriously that despite the cash-strapped times, Baltimore's troubled school system recently presented a plan to pay high school students who improve their scores on state graduation exams up to $110.

In the District, next year's budget will probably drop from $796.2 million to $794.6 million because of declining enrollment, Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for Rhee, wrote in an e-mail. Any savings would be spent on classroom instruction.

"Some school-level spending is under review for this year as a result of inheriting a system that was in financial ruins," Hobson wrote. "We are spending this year getting the financial house in order."

Although districts have tried to keep instruction intact, some effects are unavoidable as long-term plans to promote achievement are postponed.

In the Prince George's system, which has struggled to make federal standards, the fiscal hard times have stalled the expansion of the International Baccalaureate program, among others. There are no plans to give teachers a raise this year. The system has 16,000 positions, and more than 300 vacant ones are being eliminated.

But the hardest blow was the postponement of an ambitious plan to create schools for pre-K to eighth grade. The first phase of the plan, which was meant to relieve crowding at some schools and address long-standing problems with academic achievement among middle schoolers, would have cost $35 million. In today's climate that is impossible, Superintendent John E. Deasy told the Board of Education at a recent budget meeting.

Deasy said that he would press on with his plans but that they might take longer.

"They have an infinite number of dreams, and we have a finite number of resources, and we're going to have to make good on that," Deasy said.

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