Housing Downturn Squeezing Schools
Program Delays, Larger Classes Being Considered

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.

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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