Montgomery County residents who testified before the Board of Education last week were in a sober mood. They emphasized pleas to save a few positions in special education and school administration, and avoided requests for expensive new programs such as those made in past years.
Many who made statements during three evenings of testimony began their remarks by recognizing the problems of paying for public education in a time of inflation, declining enrollment and decreasing state and federal support.
"In the past . . . school communities testified as to their priorities among the available choices,c said Marlene Bolze, PTSA president at Walt Whitman High School. "Now there are no choices. We must fight for funds just to cover the necessities of education -- teachers' salaries, textbooks, equipment and acceptable class sizes. There are few funds in the superintendent's proposed budget for improvements."
Superintendent Edward Andrews proposed a $339.7 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, compared with this year's budget of $309.1 million. Nearly $23 million of the new budget amount will cover a cost-of-living raise for teachers, a figure computed from the 1980 consumer price index announced by the federal government last Friday.
David Eberly, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, told the school board the teachers accepted the pay increase that was negotiated a year ago "even though it does not fully compensate for cost adjustment in the Washington living area."
He reminded the board that the County Council in the past has not fully paid for cost-of-living raises in teachers' contracts, and that for the bargaining process to have any validity, the board must insure that the increase is fully covered in the budget.
The mother of a young girl with a reading and language problem was one of many speakers who asked that eight positions in the Division of Speech and Language be retained in the budget.
"Initially, Gloria had many problems relating to other children her age," said Fran Henkels, whose daughter attends Montgomery Village Junior High Learning Center. "Because of her limited vocabulary and lack of social graces, she was not accepted by her peer group and had no friends."
Henkels said a speech pathologist -- one of the positions slated to be cut -- worked with Gloria and gave her "the daily intensive resource help that she so desperately needed and will continue to need throughout her secondary school years. To date, Gloria has made remarkable progress in this vital area of functional skills. I now have a little girl who can converse with poise and sophistication on the telephone to friends who were never there before."
Syndicated columnist George Will, who lives in Chevy Chase, made an eloquent plea on behalf of special education programs. "As a parent," he said, "I can attest that the work done by the elementary learning centers is so crucial that the community must not be tempted by false economies at the centers' expense. Consider, as just one of many possible examples, the matter of speech therapy.
"On the ability to communicate depends the desire to communicate, and the capacity to make one's way through the community, and the ability to participate in the work force. In a period of budget stringencies occasioned by revenue shortfalls, it is, alas, to be expected -- but it is not to be accepted -- that there will be a backlash against those programs such as speech therapy which, to the superficial observer, seem expensive measured by the crude standard of per-pupil costs. But as a parent and as a taxpayer, I urge you not to yield to the temptation to appease strong factions by penalizing weak ones."
The Montgomery County Taxpayers League was among the budget's harshest critics. "It appears to us that the main thrust of this budget is to insure that almost the entire staff -- 75 percent of the budget -- will be maintained, regardless of need," said Carlton C. Robinson, chairman of the league's school budget committee.
"In the 10 years from 1972 to projected 1982, the school population will have declined by over 24 percent, but the staff will have decreased by only 1 percent. Put another way, the school system now employs one person for every 8.4 students, instead of one per 11 in 1972," he said.
"The voters of this county have shown their strong support for conservative school policies. We firmly believe that that endorsement applies to dollars as well as to curriculum," he continued. "We ask that in arriving at your budget judgments you bear in mind their impact on those who foot the bills."
School officials said the growth of fedral and state regulations governing programs for handicapped youngsters, reduced class sizes, and the necessity to transport more students as shools are closed all contribute to the lower student-staff ratio.
One of the most expensive requests the board heard was for restoration of the seven-period school day, at least in those high schools that had seven periods last year. Such a move would cost a little more than $1 million in teacher salaries. This year all high schools were put on a 6-period day, and schools that were too small to offer a course more than once a day reported that dropping one class period resulted in schedule conflicts.
The Board of Education is to take final action on the budget in an 8 p.m. meeting Feb. 5 at the Educational Services Center in Rockville.