Pr. George's schools head proposes budget that would freeze pay, cut middle school sports

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 11:03 PM

Prince George's County school employees' pay would be frozen and middle school sports would be eliminated under a budget proposal released Thursday by Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.

The budget request, which came a day after Montgomery County's, is for $1.69 billion for fiscal 2012, an increase of $49 million more than current levels and the latest indicator of how school systems hope to cope with straitened fiscal times and a decrease in federal stimulus money.

Class sizes would stay constant, after having grown by two students at every grade above kindergarten this year. Other cuts would be made to school administration and support staff. But the most direct impact on students and families would probably be the suggestion to eliminate intramural middle school athletics, which would save $800,000 and end after-school baseball, softball, basketball and soccer in the middle grades.

Federal stimulus money has softened the impact of local and state funding cuts for the past two years. But much of it will no longer be available next year, and Prince George's is budgeting for $103 million less. In its stead, the county is requesting a significant increase in state funding - $139 million more than was budgeted this year - and $22 million more from the county.

"We definitely understand the state's fiscal challenges, but we want to ask for what we need to operate the district," said Matthew E. Stanski, the school system's chief financial officer.

Board of Education Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5) said the proposal was going to take some long study. "We're going to need the funding to sustain us," she said. "We're going to have to balance those things that clearly contribute to academics with the things that just have to be eliminated."

As for middle school athletics, she said that cut would be "significant for kids, and I definitely would need to hear more before I could support that."

Some, but not all, local school systems have comparable middle school athletics programs. Loudoun County does not; Montgomery does. So does Prince William County, where Superintendent Steven L. Walts in February proposed requiring a fee for participation last winter before the funding situation improved and the idea was abandoned.

The shift in the funding burden from federal to local is in part a reflection of how states have allocated stimulus money in the past two years. Many states, Maryland included, used federal money to substitute for funding they would have given under their own formulas.

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has called for an elimination of furloughs for school staff and other county employees, and that request is reflected in the budget proposal, meaning that salary expenses go up in all categories, as opposed to fiscal 2010, when employees were furloughed up to nine days. The change will cost about $24 million, Stanski said.

County politicians said it was difficult to evaluate the proposal before they know how much money they have to spend.

"We are committed to doing as much as we can for our schools," said Council Vice Chairman Eric Olson (D-College Park). "But there are a lot of unknowns."

Just how much money the state will be willing to pay remains unclear.

When the state legislature convenes in the new year, it might discuss a proposal to pass some costs of teacher pensions back to counties. Basic state funding levels for education are also uncertain.

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