Montgomery County slashes budget for schools

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Class sizes will expand, hundreds of teaching positions will be eliminated and other services will be slashed under a budget approved Tuesday by the Montgomery County Board of Education. It is the first year-to-year spending cut in memory, officials said.

The vote caps a long, contentious spring that at one point had the school system threatening to sue the county. Classrooms will be spared the worst of the cuts, but teachers will notice the changes in diminished training and support and in frozen salaries. Because of retirements and attrition, the layoffs will be limited to about two dozen people, mostly teachers of low-enrollment subjects such as Italian and business education.

Average class sizes will increase by one student, as the school system eliminates 252 teaching positions, and other programs also face the ax as the system deals with a 4.4 percent budget cut next year, along with an expected 2 percent increase in enrollment. The total schools' operating budget will be cut by $97 million for fiscal 2011, to $2.1 billion.

"Is this budget what we want? No, it's not. Is it what we can afford? Yes," said Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. "It's probably the most difficult budget I've worked on."

Although salaries are flat, no one will face furloughs. Because many county employees are facing furloughs, members of the Montgomery County Council had decried the lack of furloughs in the school system.

Central office staffing and spending has been cut by $6.5 million, and by 18 percent since 2008. Support staff and maintenance workers were among those cut. There will also be fewer new textbooks -- money for that has diminished 30 percent -- and buses that take elementary school students to after-school activities have been eliminated.

In adopting the budget for the 2011 fiscal year, the school board declined to revisit another cut to a popular magnet arts program at Einstein High School that had drawn significant protest, including several speakers at Tuesday's meeting. One of the program's two teachers is being reassigned elsewhere at the school, something that fans of the program say will hurt it.

The board also unanimously voted to reject the applications of two prospective charter schools, which would have been the county's first. Global Garden had applied as a school for gifted students that would have used an International Baccalaureate curriculum. Crossway Community had applied as a Montessori school with wrap-around social services for families. Weast and a review panel had recommended against them, saying that the applications were not fully developed.

The applicants can appeal to the Maryland State Board of Education, which has final say and has in the past granted charters to schools that had their applications rejected by local school boards.

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