Deep cuts in school budget for Prince George's County, Md.

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hundreds of jobs would be eliminated, furloughs would be imposed and student-teacher ratios would increase in many grades under a $1.67 billion budget for 2010-11 proposed by the Prince George's County superintendent Wednesday night.

Unlike Montgomery County's school system, which presented a budget last week that held the line on student services but warned of potential cuts in the future, Prince George's would slash spending in nearly every department of the 127,000-student school system, Maryland's second-largest.

And that is before state and county authorities determine whether they can fully fund schools in this tough economic climate.

The budget calls for $42.5 million less in spending than this year's plan. Although spending would increase for some purposes -- such as the addition of 75 positions to staff four new schools -- the budget contains about $110 million in cuts, including the elimination of 490 positions.

The student-teacher ratio in fourth through sixth and ninth through 12th grades would increase by one student per class, allowing the school system to eliminate 152 teaching positions. More than 120 jobs of people who work as liaisons to parents and the community would be cut.

The budget contains more than $20 million in reductions to central office staff, proposing to eliminate jobs in academics and accountability, human resources, communications, special education, student services, the office of the chief financial officer and other departments. The budget also calls for a $23 million savings by furloughing employees, including teachers.

Matthew E. Stanski, the school system's chief financial officer, said it was unclear whether layoffs would be required. He said attrition could account for some of the reductions. He also said the length of furloughs would have to be worked out between union leaders and school board members. He said each day of furlough time would yield about $5 million in savings.

"We all knew coming into this year that this would be a difficult year for us," said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. "One of the things we were attempting to do was to hold classrooms and schools harmless. That meant where we could maintain levels such as student-teacher ratios, we did that."

Hite said he was not able to do that across grade levels but preserved the student-teacher ratio for young children and those in middle school, where student achievement often begins to slide.

The cuts were prompted by a $27 million drop in federal stimulus funding, as well as $17 million less from the school system's reserve funds. In recent years, the school system has used millions of dollars of reserve funds to stave off reductions to classroom services. But now that reserve is nearly exhausted.

Barring a new federal stimulus plan or unexpected increases in state and county funding, it is unlikely the situation will improve. If anything, things are likely to get tougher: State lawmakers have been exploring ways to change the Maryland law that sets a minimum level of funding for education. Any changes probably would give county governments more flexibility in cutting education funding.

School board members largely withheld judgment of the budget during their period for asking questions. "It looks like we're cutting from the bottom up as opposed to the top down," said school board member Pat Fletcher (District 3).

The school board will discuss budget priorities at hearings in January and February.

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