Pr. George's school board approves big cuts

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011

The Prince George's County school board approved on Thursday night a gloomy budget that slashes more than 1,300 jobs and increases class sizes, despite the pleas of parents and educators who begged the panel to find another way.

Still, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the 8-to-1 vote was only a first step, as he held out hope that the tough-love fiscal plan might persuade the state and county governments to contribute more money. Both entities must approve the budget before it is implemented.

"I've been up for 48 hours, and I think I know where every penny is,'' said a teary Donna Hathaway Beck, the board's vice chairwoman. "But I think we have to get this over to the county because, as ungodly as it might seem, there might be more cuts. . . . I've never, never been so anguished."

The $1.6 billion budget marks a 2 percent decrease from the current fiscal year. In an effort to close a $155 million gap, the plan would cut 300 staff vacancies, 400 teachers and 92 librarians, among other personnel reductions.

Several initiatives would end, including a popular reading program for students who have fallen behind and transportation for students attending specialized schools. An ecological center known as Camp Schmidt would close. In addition, pre-kindergarten would be reduced to a half-day program and class sizes in most grades would increase by one student.

Hite had long known this day would come. For the past two years, the budget was kept afloat with an infusion of nearly $100 million in federal stimulus money. That money has dried up.

Citing the system's declining enrollment, the state had reduced its education funding for Prince George's by about $20 million from last year's levels.

There has also been a loss of tax revenue in the county, exacerbating a budget brimming over with cruel cuts.

Hundreds of parents attended hearings on the budget, concerned about the future.

"We don't want our kids to be in bigger classes because, for teachers, it's already difficult to give students the attention they need,'' said Montserrat Andrade, a mother of a high-school student.

By law, the school board must approve the budget by March 1. Despite the broad concerns about the cuts, only one member, Edward Burroughs III, voted against the plan.

The board's efforts to obtain more county and state funding, at a time when demands are high and money is tight, might prove futile. The approved budget asks the county to contribute $25 million, which would increase funding by $200 per student.

By June, the three entities must reconcile any differences in allocations. Chairwoman Verjeana Jacobs said the board's deep cuts are needed to pressure the county.

"They need to know and must know how devastating this budget is,'' Jacobs said.

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