By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 9:55 PM
Debby Wood has been teaching in Prince George's County for 38 years, and if there's one thing she never tires of, it's seeing her first-grade students when they can read a book on their own for the first time.
"Their faces light up. They are so proud of themselves," said Wood, a reading teacher at Phyllis E. Williams Elementary in Upper Marlboro. "You can't put a price on that expression."
But at an annual cost of $4.5 million, the school system has decided it must end the program for first-graders who struggle with reading.
The Prince George's school system is facing a $155 milllion gap in its $1.6 billion budget. That has led schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. to propose the most severe cuts in his three-year tenure.
Among many other cuts, Hite has proposed eliminating 259 jobs by increasing class sizes, which would save $20 million, and eliminating 233 positions for the pre-kindergarten program, which would be reduced to a half-day program, saving $10 million. He also proposes to close the William S. Schmidt Outdoor Education Center, known as Camp Schmidt, where fifth-graders have learned about the outdoors for four decades.
School board members say budget cuts are particularly painful this year because the system has relied for the past two years on federal stimulus money that has ended.
The likely closing of Camp Schmidt, in the Brandywine area, doesn't sit well with Laura Espinal, a fourth-grader at Calverton Elementary who praised the program's "eco-friendly" approach.
"The bluebird house would close and the bluebirds will lose their homes," she said at a Feb. 10 budget hearing.
School board members will vote on the budget Thursday, which will be the last chance for the public's input. But while Hite and the school board members are expected to hear more pleas to retain programs, they say there is not much that they can do.
"At the end of the day, we still have a $155 million budget gap to close," Hite said in an interview. "We have already identified $70 million in cuts. Now we are trying to identify $85 million in cuts. We have heard the public respond to some of the proposals that we have. It doesn't change the whole amount, but it changes how we are doing the reductions."
During the Feb. 10 hearing, the Board of Education's chambers were packed with students. "If children really do come first and you abide by that, then you won't take JROTC out of the budget and away from me and my fellow cadets," said Quishaun Gaines, 17, an Air Force JROTC cadet at Flowers High School in Springdale.
Little more than a week later, Hite told board members during a work session that the school system would be able to keep JROTC by eliminating one or two positions at each of the county high schools that have programs. But that was an exception, and one unlikely to be repeated. Hite said there would be no saving Camp Schmidt.
Cellestine Cheeks, associate professor of library science at Towson State University, said she applauds the school board for trying to be fiscally responsible. But she said that eliminating media specialist jobs will hurt the school libraries.
"There is no more important area in the school than the school library," Cheeks said. "Without the school library, many children will not have access to 21st-century technology."
Phelecia Nemdhard, president of the PTA at Lamont Elementary School in New Carollton, testified on behalf of the guidance counselor at her daughter's school. After 40 years in the school system, the counselor is scheduled to be laid off.
"We have to support programs that really help our children stay in school," Nemdhard said. "Guidance counselors, ROTC, reading teachers are all programs that our children need."
While the reading program for struggling first-graders is expected to be cut, school board member Edward Burroughs III (District 8) said it makes more sense to teach children how to read now than to place them in special education later.
"Shall we pay now or shall we pay later?" he asked.