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Housing Downturn Squeezing Schools

But outside observers worry that the slowdown might rattle confidence in improvement of the system, which has posted better scores on state tests in recent years.

"You're slowing the pace of reform," said David Merkowitz, the executive director of the Prince George's Business-Education Alliance. "The big concern is the community begins to lose faith when that happens. . . . You have the potential for public disillusionment."

In Virginia, the story is the same. Fairfax projects a $100 million shortfall. The system has proposed a $2.3 billion budget, an increase of 3.3 percent to help fund pay raises and other expenses. But the system is also considering a proposal to stop covering fees on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests for some students.

Superintendent Jack D. Dale recommended a budget this month that would save money on staffing by increasing mainstream class sizes by half a student. He suggested an overhaul of the summer school program, which would limit offerings in the coming year, and proposed cutting back some programs that would help poor or minority students. One such program provides extra reading instruction for minority or poor children; another helps prepare them for college.

Among the most controversial of Dale's suggestions is to limit spending on AP or IB tests. The school system covers the fees for these tests and prides itself on the increasing number of students who take them. Under Dale's proposal, only students from lower-income families would get a fee waiver. The School Board will also consider charging more fees for student activities, such as high school sports.

The budget proposal still includes a 3 percent cost of living increase for teachers and continues to roll out a costly all-day kindergarten initiative as well as add foreign language instruction in more elementary schools. Unless the county can help the school system bridge its funding gap, the time line for implementing these programs could be lengthened.

"Everyone will be working more. Teachers will be dealing with more students. Parents and students will be paying more fees," Deirdra McLaughlin, the system's chief financial officer, said at a news conference when the proposal was presented. "There's nobody that would not feel this."

Smaller counties have had to make similar tough choices. Calvert County created an incentive package for older teachers who retire early in hopes of hiring younger teachers, who are paid less. St. Mary's County has frozen hiring and is making small cuts, closing administrative offices over the winter break, cutting travel expenses and turning off lights. The system's budget for fiscal 2009 has no new initiatives but will continue to expand a new gifted program.

In Loudoun County, School Board members approved a budget 14 percent higher than last year's to accommodate an expected 3,000 new students. The county faces a projected $250 million shortfall, and the 54,000 student system will probably have to look for new places for savings.

But even relatively small cuts can raise hackles among teachers and parents. In Montgomery, proposals to save $546,060 by asking some teachers in the five secondary magnet programs to teach one more daily class have provoked alarm. It spread when a Montgomery Blair teacher wrote in a widely circulated e-mail that some of the school's most advanced classes might be eliminated because of low enrollment.

"The magnet as you knew it will no longer exist," wrote the teacher, Nannette Dyas.

School system officials say such fears are unfounded. But they say some reduction to the county's prized gifted education programs was inevitable as the school system searched for $10 million in cuts, which would make room for new spending in other parts of the $2.1 billion budget request for the next fiscal year.

The budget request seeks, on the balance, a year-to-year increase of $110 million. But it would be the smallest annual increase since 1997.

Staff writers Michael Alison Chandler and Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.

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