Prince George's schools may cut 1,132 jobs, enlarge classes

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 10:41 PM

Prince George's School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has proposed cutting more than 1,100 jobs, paring back kindergarten programs and increasing some class sizes to close a major budget shortfall.

The cuts are more severe than what Hite proposed just seven weeks ago, when he presented a budget for fiscal 2012 that would freeze pay and eliminate middle school sports while also cutting hundreds of jobs.

Since then, state officials have proposed lower local school funding levels than Hite expected. The budget he proposed Tuesday night includes nearly all of his previous cuts and many new ones, with the goal of saving $155 million and bringing the bottom line to $1.6 billion.

"We are looking to continue the academic progress that we have made over the past several years," Hite said at a news conference. "We're also looking to protect, as much as we can, classrooms and schools. However, we know this is going to be a painful process."

The school system, like many in the Washington area and nationwide, is struggling with lagging tax revenue and the end of federal stimulus money that cushioned recent budgets.

Several board members expressed frustration over the need for deeper cuts, calling the proposed budget "dire." The school board is expected to vote on the budget by the end of February.

Student member Jonathan Harris II said the cuts would hurt the quality of education. "Already, with what we have right now, that's not enough," he said.

It was not clear how many of the job cuts would come from attrition, such as retirements and resignations, and how many would come from layoffs. But the cuts would fall most heavily on non-teaching positions. The system, which has about 1,000 workers who are eligible for retirement, is considering offering retirement incentives.

In the past four years, Prince George's schools have cut hundreds of positions. County schools now have about 18,200 employees, of whom 8,821 are teachers. The number of teachers is expected to fall to 8,693, school officials said.

In previous years, many positions were kept vacant and normal attrition took care of most of the cuts, Hite said. But this year, "we are unable to find vacant positions or positions that we can address through attrition," he said.

Media specialists would face deep cuts, with the budget projecting a decline of 90 jobs, about half the county's total. The central office would lose at least 145 jobs, and all executive employees would have three-day furloughs.

Hite said he hopes increases in class sizes would be confined mainly to elective classes.

Several board members questioned a proposal to move evening high school classes online. Right now, about 465 students are enrolled in programs at three high schools. School officials said that moving the program online would allow them to cut seven positions and save $3.3 million.

Board member Edward Burroughs III (District 8) said an online program might not offer enough support for those students, some of whom work during the day, are not fluent in English or have children. "These students need more support, not less. It's a very fragile group," he said.

The county's pre-kindergarten, meanwhile, would change from full-day to half-day. Among other cuts, the William S. Schmidt Outdoor Education Center would close. Students playing sports would face athletic fees of $50.

Several board members proposed ideas for avoiding deep cuts or persuading state officials to dedicate more funding to education. Board member Peggy Higgins (District 2) suggested that people contact their legislators and ask them to raise more revenue, perhaps through a higher tax on alcoholic beverages.

Board member Rosalind A. Johnson (District 1) pleaded for more funding. "We need to think about how we invest in our children," she said.

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