Nearly 300 angry Prince George's County residents came out for a public hearing this week on a proposed school budget most believe could mark the beginning of a decline in the quality of education in Prince George's County.
About 70 speakers at the hearing, held at Eleanor Roosevelt Senior High in Greenbelt, denounced the austere $287 million budget, which cuts funds for the high school interscholastic athletic program by half, eliminates 12 of the county's 13 reading specialists and three of the six art specialists.
"I don't feel that this is a bare-bones budget. I think it's less than a bare-bones budget," said Johnny Fisher, a member of the Margaret Edmonston Elementary PTA. "You're whittling away at quality education in this county, one of the best calling cards that any community that wants to grow and expand must have."
Fisher's comments were typical of the protests at this week's hearing on the fiscal 1981 school budget proposed by Superintendent Edward J. Feeney. As was the case at two previous hearings, parents and teachers were especially angered by the TRIM-induced cuts in the reading, arts and high school interscholastic athletic programs.
But while these items have drawn the most consistent criticism from speakers at the hearings, a general fear that this budget may mark the start of a decine in educational quality had been echoed in speeches of both friends and foes of the superintendent's proposed budget.
"If we proceed with the proposed cuts, what we're going to do is start a new trend -- one which will increase inequities in this county," said Merilyn Reeves, a member of the Laurel Junior High School Parents Advisory Council. "Every booster club isn't going to be able to make up for the cuts in the athletic program."
Several countywide organizations also have spoken out against the budget, which increased by 3.2 percent over last year's budget. o
"If this budget is approved, it will mark the start of the deterioration of a completely good school system," Emerson Markham, budget committee chairman for the Prince George's County Council of PTAs, told a crowd of 250 at Largo Senior High School last week.
"What we're doing is trimming away quality in our educational system. How much damage will TRIM do to our educational system before it is modified or dropped?" Markham asked. "If the school board doesn't stand up for quality education, who will?"
According to Markham, the Council of PTAs plans to release a report next week on the superintendent's proposals. During the next two weeks, the school board will hold four public work sessions and will send a final budget to the county executive by Feb. 15.
At last week's meeting, Twyla Minor, a reading teacher, said the elimination of the reading specialists would hurt the program.
"The reading specialists have been very valuable in giving a sense of direction to our programs. These cuts make you really wonder how much of a priority reading is in the Prince George's County school system," she said.
The 50 percent cut in the high school interscholastic sports budget has also drawn criticism at the three hearings. Brian Porter, public information officer for the schools, said the reductions will not eliminate any sports, but will affect support services for all athletic teams.
"Booster clubs would have to pick up the tab for things like ticket printing and sales, new uniforms, and special programs for participants," said Porter.
Under the proposed budget, the elementary school summer program would also be dropped and the secondary school program would last four weeks instead of five. Last year, about 150 students attended the elementary school summer session.
Superintendent Feeney pared nearly $9 million from the budget by taking 625 jobs from the personnel rolls. About 356 of the positions eliminated were school-based teaching, administrative and counseling jobs cut because of declining enrollment.
As in the past, the equipment replacement budget took a beating, having been cut 37 percent for a saving to the schools of approximately $400,000.
However, rising utility costs, increased teacher salaries and inflation combined to increase this year's budget by nearly $9 million over last year's.
Moreover, because of revenue losses elsewhere, the budget as proposed would require an additional $13 million in county funds.
Because County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan has said repeatedly in the last several months that the schools should expect no more than $6 million in additional funds, a major budget battle is likely to follow if the school board approves Feeney's budget.
Robert Brooke, president of the William Wirt Junior High School PTSO, got a loud burst of applause when he said, "Before we trim any more out of this budget, we need to trim the county executive out of office so that quality education can remain a priority in this county's school system."
"I don't think Hogan realizes that we've responded to TRIM as best we could," said Porter. "He has to understand that the next round of cuts will affect what happens in the classroom. It's pretty difficult to do better than a 3 percent budget increase in times of double digit inflation."