Spending Plan Would Cut 900 Jobs, Close Schools

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Prince George's County superintendent will unveil a $1.68 billion budget proposal today that would slash about 900 positions from the school system's workforce, close six schools and increase class sizes in first through third grades.

To save $106 million, Interim Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. recommends eliminating 917 jobs in the fiscal year that begins in July, among them teachers, assistant principals, parent liaisons, instructional coaches and support staff. School officials said yesterday that they hope to eliminate the jobs through attrition -- from 600 to 800 teachers leave the system each year -- rather than laying off employees. The budget would include no cost-of-living salary increases.

The total job loss -- almost 5 percent of the county schools workforce -- is slightly offset by the creation of a few dozen positions for new schools and an autism program, among others. Altogether, the school system proposes to raise spending $11 million from the current level and cut 866 positions. The deep cuts are required to offset spending increases on items such as teacher benefits and utilities.

"We're just in a position where we're not able to expand upon some things that we've wanted to expand," said school system spokesman John White. "But it doesn't mean we're not going to maintain things that we think are working, because we are. . . . No one can ignore what's going on around us."

The austere proposal is another sign that the national economic recession has hit Prince George's with full force. But in some regards it is optimistic. It assumes the county government will meet its required "maintenance of effort" funding, even though the county may request a waiver, and it notes that the state is considering making county governments pay teachers' pensions -- a measure that would require tens of millions of dollars in more cuts.

Plummeting home sales and property values have led local governments across the Washington region to hunt for spending cuts. Montgomery County teachers and other school employees are giving up a 5 percent pay raise next year, saving $89 million. Fairfax County is contemplating increasing class sizes by as many as 2 1/2 children a class next school year, a bump of more than 10 percent in elementary classrooms.

The Prince George's budget proposal, which awaits school board consideration, is Hite's first. He took over the 130,000-student system on Dec. 1, after his predecessor, John E. Deasy, took another job.

Deasy's budgets, in better economic times, were characterized by expansive initiatives meant to strengthen the county's academic performance. Hite has warned that he might have to roll back some of them to focus on essentials.

Hite's proposal would eliminate most parent liaisons -- personnel at each school who help administrators interact with parents -- but keep them at schools on the state's watch list for academic problems and at schools with high poverty levels. The budget also cuts the use of America's Choice, a program designed to help students with reading and math skills, at high schools, while keeping it in elementary and middle schools.

Economies are being sought in other places, as well: Six yet-unnamed schools with low enrollment would be closed, White said.

"We haven't identified any schools specifically yet," White said. "We just know that we have unused capacity that we could consolidate and see a cost savings."

Like their counterparts elsewhere, Prince George's school officials are looking at increasing class sizes to save money. The school system's budget chief, Matthew E. Stanski, said the first through third grades would go from 22 students per teacher to 24 students. The change would save the school system $8.4 million a year and reduce staffing by 106 instructors.

Class size could go up in other grade levels as well. Prince George's plans to follow a formula based on enrollment to cut an additional 200 positions and save $15.7 million. Many schools were slightly overstaffed in recent years, resulting in a lower ratio of students to instructors than they might have otherwise had.

The school board's chairman, Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large), did not return calls yesterday requesting comment.

"I do know that there are some cuts, and I'm hoping that we do survive it," said Donald Briscoe, the head of the Prince George's County Educators' Association. "We're going to fight as hard as we can to make sure our members get a fair share."

The budget will be formally presented at a meeting with the Board of Education this evening.

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