Children, take out your atlases. Don't be ashamed just because we have company," said Marlene Abbitt to her fifth-grade students.
Dutifully, the Capitol Heights Elementary children produced 25 thin, paperbound volumes, many with ragged-edged blue covers nearly falling off. Those that looked in fair condition bore the names of the students who paid for their own new copies.
"I think the world has changed a bit since" the remainder of the atlases were first issued eight years ago, said Annette Blake who, like Abbitt, is a mother, a taxpayer and a teacher at the Prince George's County school.
At a series of three public hearings during the last two weeks, hundreds of Prince George's taxpayers, parents and homeowners turned out to voice concern about the impact of Superintendent Edward J. Feeney's proposed $294 million budget on the county's public school students. Most of these citizens were also teachers, who are seeking a 42.4 percent salary increase.
Many charged that the school budget is being stretched thinner and thinner, like "a rubber band ready to snap," because of TRIM, the county's charter amendment that holds the line on property taxes, said Joanne Brown, chairman of the county council of PTAs.
The chief complaints voiced at the hearings were class sizes in excess of the averages specified by school system guidelines and in the teachers' contracts; a scarcity of classroom materials; and long waits for replacement and repairs of school equipment, particularly audiovisual equipment. Most teachers said the shortages of supplies and deterioration of equipment have become more apparent during the last three years.
While many of the teachers spoke in defense of their salary request, many others -- like Blake -- pleaded for their students, sons and daughters. Blake's 10-year-old daughter, Tabbette, is in Abbitt's class.
That class shares one set of 10-year-old health books -- from which they learn their basic biology and hygiene -- with three other classes, making the scheduling of classroom and homework assignments difficult for teachers.
"We have to run around asking who is going to use the books on what day," Abbitt said in an interview in her classroom. "Heaven help us if we don't finish an assignment on that day."
Abbitt said she has stopped ordering films for her class because projectors break down too often. But she is determined that "these kids are going to learn."
"The cutting of the budget has done a lot of harm," Ruth N. Ward, Capitol Heights principal for eight years, said in an interview.
"In some ways we could stand to tighten things up. But in other ways we are being hurt. I can tolerate losing some personnel, you can tolerate losing some fringe benefits, but it is hard to tolerate not having textbooks," she said.
Assistant School Superintendent Clark A. Estep agreed that the proposed budget, which Superintendent Feeney has called a "crisis" budget, means no frills for the county schools. But he said the crisis results from drastic cuts that may be necessary in some budget areas. If the county refuses to provide funds to cover teachers' pay raises now being negotiated. Estep said salaries consume 80 percent of the budget.
"We think teachers will have the supplies they need even with this budget," said Estep. "There are always things that are nice to have, but they are not always essential to the curriculum," he added.
Comparison of school budgets for fiscal 1980 and 1981 and the proposed budget for next year shows that enrollment has declined 8.5 percent while the total number of teachers has dropped 9 percent. The teachers' two-year contract, which began in July 1979, has yielded raises totaling 10.3 percent. Sums spent for supplies and materials have increased 4 percent -- a decline of at least 8 percent when inflation is considered.
Estep said he was a little surprised at the severity of conditions described by the teachers during the hearings, adding that he believes the politics of contract negotiations may have prompted some exaggeration.
Regarding class size, for example, he pointed out that in the Northern Region of the school system the average size of a third-grade class was about 27 students, slightly under the guideline that specifies 28 pupils per class. On the other hand, the averages can mask sharp imbalances between schools, because enrollment is declining at different rates throughout the system. Of the 53 third-grade classes in the region, 17 were above the 28-student guideline and 36 had 28 or fewer students, he said.
Ward believes that despite the hardships, her students are getting an education. She cited improvement in the performance of third graders on standardized reading and math tests last year. Those scores at Capitol Heights, a predominantly black, inner-Beltway school, were slightly above countywide averages.
"I think they (school administrators) have done a good job with what they have," Ward said.
She also credits an active PTA that raises $800 to $1,000 for the school each year through the sale of spices or candy. The "spice money" helps Ward at the end of the month when paper runs out or a teacher needs a cardboard clock for a lesson about telling time.
Ward's school is staffed according to complex formulas designed to yield classes averaging 28 students for grades one through three and 30 for grades four through six. But five of Ward's 14 classes are larger than the recommended size.
Many teachers testified at the hearings that they are seeing an increasing number of overcrowded classrooms.
"You put four more students into a class and it really makes a difference," said Capitol Heights second-grade teacher Teresa O'Connor in an interview at the school. She said that with a class of 32 pupils, she cannot give the second graders the individual attention they need during math instruction.
O'Connor also said she cannot use the 16-year-old language-arts books allotted her. So, like many Prince George's teachers, she prepares an increasing amount of material, particularly for follow-up work after lessons. Much of the material is copied from dittoed "master" books that she buys herself.
But ditto paper is in short supply, requiring teachers to borrow from other teachers and print on both sides on inferior yellow stock paper.
Suitland Senior High science teacher James Bumpus prepares about half his class material on dittos, partly because he cannot order some of the books he wants for his class. High schools usually use white bond paper for dittos, but one of Bumpus' chemistry tests is printed in watery blue ink on both sides of the paper and is almost impossible to read. i
Another teaching aid is an overhead projector that has no front legs. Transparencies and the marking pens for writing on them are hard to come by, as are bulbs and replacement parts.
"They prepare what they consider to be a major lesson, then the machine breaks down or the bulb blows out," said Suitland Principal Walter Battle in an interview at the school. "Because of the budget crunch, that machine is not repaired or replaced as readily as it should be."
In the last two years Suitland has lost one of two teachers specializing in the reading skills. It has lost both its reading aides, and its custodial staff has been reduced from 16 to 13. Because of the loss of a social studies teacher last year, an art teacher and a home economics teacher are picking up the slack in that area.
Battle cautions that staffing cutbacks must be seen in the light of declines in enrollment; Suitland's enrollment dropped by 102 students last year -- from 2,184 to 2,082.
Most teachers who testified at the recent hearings said the budget pinch is being felt throughout the school system in much the same ways it is being felt at Capitol Heights and Suitland High. Several emphasized that the most severe impact will be on schools in poor neighborhoods, where students have the greatest need to make up for what society has not given them outside the classroom. Larger class sizes, teachers say, force them to spend less time with students.
"The ones who will suffer the most are the ones who need the attention that I can't give them," Bumpus said.