Deep budget cuts approved for Prince George's schools

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Prince George's Board of Education on Saturday eliminated hundreds of jobs, approved lengthy furloughs, slashed bus service and expanded class sizes for all but the youngest students under a budget for the 2010-11 school year.

Unlike in Montgomery County, which passed a schools budget earlier this month that largely maintains services while warning of potential cuts in coming months, the budget in Prince George's County cuts deeply into every area of education.

The $1.66 billion budget represents a cut of 2.6 percent, or $45 million, from current spending levels and is more drastic than Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. proposed in December. The cuts will be felt throughout the 127,000-student school system, Maryland's second-largest. And there is a chance that the school system will have to cut even deeper.

The budget calls for the elimination of 800 positions, including 355 in the classroom. Class sizes will rise by two students at every level except pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. More than 120 jobs of people who work as liaisons to parents and the community would be cut, and employees would have to take up to two weeks of furlough leave. Bus service to specialty programs would be modified to a hub system, lengthening commutes for children and making them take two buses as a way to reduce the total number of bus drivers. School lunch prices would rise by 50 cents.

"We have cut to the bone," Hite said. "Now we're into the bone."

There will be $20 million in cuts at the central office. Jobs are being eliminated in academics and accountability, human resources, communications, special education, student services and the office of the chief financial officer.

The reductions are prompted by a $22.8 million drop in federal stimulus funding, a $6 million decline in county funding and a $37 million drop in state funding, the result of new enrollment estimates that are lower than anticipated. State funding has also been lowered because of a controversial state formula that allocates money based on the county's income tax returns. The school system also used $17.4 million from a reserve fund to supplement this year's spending but will not have that money for next year. The school board budgeted a $37 million reserve fund that it would allocate to specific programs later if it receives that money from the state.

The budget was adopted by a 7 to 1 vote, with board member Heather Iliff (District 2) dissenting. Board member Linda Thornton Thomas (District 4) left before the vote to attend a funeral but said before leaving that she opposed the budget.

Barring unexpected increases in state or county funding, it is unlikely that the funding situation will improve. In fact, it could get tougher: Bills are pending in the General Assembly that would waive requirements for minimum levels of education spending. They would give county governments the ability to cut education funding further.

At a budget hearing Thursday, cuts to the parent liaison program prompted the most community outcry -- and tears. Parents packed seats in the school board's auditorium in Upper Marlboro. Parents, many speaking through interpreters, said that the liaisons, who serve as translators and interpreters in schools with large Spanish-speaking populations, are the only links parents have to their schools.

"I'm a father like everybody here," said Jose Trujillo, speaking Thursday through an interpreter, "and I see they are going to cut off the only way of communication between parents and teachers."

Administrators said that principals at schools in high-poverty areas receiving federal Title I funding would be able to use discretionary dollars to hire their own liaisons and that there are other translation services available for parents within the system. But that would force them to cut other programs, and the vast majority of schools that qualify for Title I funding are elementary. Four middle schools qualify, but none of the county's high schools does.

A proposal from Iliff to restore a portion of the money for interpreters was rejected by the seven board members who voted to adopt the budget.

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