Parents Speak Out Against School Cuts

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

Parents scrambled to air concerns this week about proposed cuts in programs and services that they say would hurt special education and other vulnerable students in the Fairfax County school system.

A public hearing last week on Superintendent Jack D. Dale's $2.3 billion operating budget brought out nearly 200 speakers and lasted well past midnight, prompting school officials to schedule a second hearing Monday.

School Board members are scheduled to vote tonight on a recommendation for what promises to be the most austere budget in a decade. They will then send it to county supervisors, who will set the property tax rate and school spending levels. A final budget is expected to be approved in late May and would take effect July 1.

Dale seeks to raise spending 3.3 percent, the smallest increase in at least five years for the 165,700-student system. That would go halfway toward bridging a projected $100 million shortfall.

Many cost-saving proposals have alarmed parents. Dozens have spoken out about a proposal to cut staffing for a special education preschool program, which serves about 1,700 students with a wide variety of disabilities at 44 schools. The system is considering increasing preschool class sizes from eight students to 10, which would require permission from the state. It is also considering cutting back instructional assistant positions.

Many parents, teachers and community members said individualized attention is crucial to making the program work.

Debbie Hayes of Springfield said her 4-year-old daughter has struggled with language delays but has progressed after more than a year in the preschool at Cherry Run Elementary School in Burke.

"A year ago, she was talking one word at a time. Now she is speaking in multiple-word phrases. She is communicating," Hayes said. "It's due to the teachers."

An earlier proposal to double in-class time for special education teachers and limit their time for home visits and parent education is no longer being considered, said Joyce Suydam, acting director of special education for Fairfax public schools.

Other parents at the hearing protested a possible class size increase in all mainstream classrooms and a proposal to charge for after-school sports and previously subsidized Advanced Placement tests. Some parents challenged potential cutbacks in bus service for gifted and talented programs and trims to a program that helps minority students prepare for college. Others said they were worried that they might lose extra staffing at 14 elementary schools that offer a specific emphasis, such as math, arts or technology.

Sally Hazard, whose children attend Woodley Hills Elementary, a math and science focus school in Alexandria, said the staff members organize hands-on activities that bolster learning and test scores. They help give the school, where more than half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an edge, she said.

"I don't think anyone feels like this is a bonus," Hazard said. "This is a need."

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