Last week the Prince George's County school board substantially changed the face of future public education in the county, voting to close 44 schools by 1985 in order to keep the school system viable. County schools have experienced a sharp decline in enrollment over the past decade and are being forced to squeeze every bit of savings available out of the 1982 school budget.
But for County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan, the savings may not be enough. Although closing underenrolled and older elementary schools and consolidating them with nearby schools is expected to save $3 million next year and $35 million by 1985, the $309-million budget the school board submitted to Hogan last Friday was still $12 million more than the county executive says he will accept.
And though the budget contains funds set aside for a raise of between 7 and 12 percent for the county's 7,000 teachers, there is no guarantee that the teachers, whose negotiations with the county school board are currently at an impasse, will settle for that amount, even if Hogan and the County Council leave it in.
The vote to close 44 schools by 1985 comes after a decline in enrollment from a peak of 163,000 students in 1973 to 122,000 this year and is the most aggressive response to the nationwide problem taken by any school system in the metropolitan area. Montgomery County has closed 31 schools over the last eight years, while the most closed in Fairfax in one year was seven in 1980.
As a result, the neighborhood elementary school will be a rarer commodity in the county, and the grade 7 through 9 junior high school will cease to exist. To save money, the school system will even create a unique new high school by joining a closed junior high and a closed elementary school.
Nevertheless, Hogan insists there is at least $6 million of administrative waste in the budget, despite the fact that the system has the lowest administrative overhead per pupil in the metropolitan area, and has said he would like to see more schools closed at a faster rate.
He has also said that the demands of the Prince George's County teachers are exorbitant, and as his chief budget analyst Steven Kaplan pointed out, the county has no obligation to fund any raise.
School officials are almost certain that they will be forced to make further cuts, despite their insistence that the budget is already the bare minimum. Immediately threatened is a planned reduction in elementary class sizes, also voted last week.
As one school budget official put it, "In this county, at this time we are truly constrained; it is an absolute and total lock. I am telling you, I am sitting here and I am sweating."
In the past, school closings have called forth strong protest from parents complaining that their local schools were the heart of their community. Such pressure usually lead to some form of compromise.
This year there was considerable pressure put on some school board members, particularly Norman Saunders and Leslie Kreimer, to give further study to closing schools in their districts or to spare them outright. But a five-vote majority, which held firm through 10 challenges to the plan, was convinced that this year the school system could not afford to flinch on the money-saving measure.