Money Fears Become Real For Md., Va. Public Schools

Jack D. Dale, superintendent of schools in Fairfax, said that "it will take decades to recover" from the cuts being considered.
Jack D. Dale, superintendent of schools in Fairfax, said that "it will take decades to recover" from the cuts being considered. (By Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Alison Chandler and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Leaders of the region's two largest school systems outlined yesterday their grimmest scenarios to date for how looming budget shortfalls could play out in classrooms, with Fairfax County facing an average increase of 2 1/2 students per class and Montgomery County forced to renegotiate teacher pay increases or cut positions.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale sketched a proposal to close a $220 million projected shortfall for the fiscal year that begins in July by eliminating summer school, except for certain special education students, and cutting more than 1,000 positions, including custodians, office workers and teachers.

"It will take decades to recover" from such cuts, Dale said in an interview. "We hope this is the worst-case scenario."

Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast estimated for the first time that the school system will need $180 million in new funds in the next fiscal year, a 9 percent increase, to avoid cutting salaries or staff. And that's far more money than the school system is likely to get, officials said. This year's $2.07 billion budget reflected an increase of $82 million. Next year's economic situation is considerably worse. The 139,000-student system also faces surging enrollment.

"There's no doubt that we have a serious problem," Weast said in a separate interview.

Money woes in the large and highly regarded school systems are echoed elsewhere in the region as the economic crisis slashes state and local tax revenue. From Frederick to Fredericksburg, educators are bracing for the worst crunch in many years.

In Fairfax, the $2.2 billion spending plan Dale presented would be only slightly smaller than the current budget but would absorb about $50 million in lost state revenue and $46 million in added expenses because of projected enrollment increases. Officials expect enrollment in the 169,000-student system, the region's largest, to grow to 174,000. The proposal assumes no increase in Fairfax County's share of the budget.

Dale briefed the School Board yesterday and will brief the Board of Supervisors on Friday. For weeks, Dale has warned that academic initiatives and staffing levels are in jeopardy.

The class size increase, which would save roughly $66 million, would lead to more split-grade-level classes in elementary schools and fewer electives or advanced classes in high schools, he said. Average class size rose by half a student this school year. Raising class size has varying effects, depending on grade level and other factors, including poverty rates. The average size of an elementary class in Fairfax in the last school year was 21.

Summer school programs, which were also reduced this year, would be virtually eliminated to save more than $9 million. Case loads for school social workers and school psychologists would go up, and librarians or technology specialist positions would be reduced. Funding for athletics, arts and after-school programs would be trimmed.

For children in some high-poverty schools, year-round calendars that provide extra instructional time and resources would be eliminated.

Teachers would absorb a large share of the impact, balancing more demands with stagnating paychecks. In addition to a likely freeze in cost-of-living raises, Dale proposed a six-month delay in paying the contracted step increases for most teachers, saving nearly $7 million, and a one-day furlough, saving $8 million.

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