Montgomery County School Superintendent Edward Andrews has tentatively set next year's operating budget at $362.2 million, an 8.4 percent increase over the current document and $10.2 million more than the County Council's estimated budget for the school system.
Most of the increase is blamed on escalating salary costs but some would finance new programs, including those outlined in a proposed policy for kindergarten through eighth grade. One of the superintendent's recommendations is to add 30 counselors for elementary schools at a cost of more than $500,000 annually. Another would add full-day kindergartens at a cost that eventually could rise to $2 million a year.
The proposals are likely to spark debate over the wisdom of adding expensive new programs while closing entire schools to save money.
School officials were unable to predict whether the preliminary figure would require a property tax increase. But school spokesman Kenneth Muir, who unveiled the budget at a meeting of Parent Teacher Association members only hours before the school board made its final school closing decisions last week, cautioned that Andrews' budget was a rough estimate. Muir said he "felt very confident" the budget would be reduced by both the board and the superintendent before being submitted to the council in March.
The school budget represents nearly 46 percent of the county's estimated $740 million total budget for next year.
Andrews' recommendations follow closely changes proposed in a kindergarten through eighth grade policy developed by a special task force appointed by the school board. The policy was described in detail for the first time at the monthly meeting of the county Council of Parent Teacher Associations.
Although much of the reaction to the budget and the policy was muted during last week's information session, pointed questions about the elementary counselors indicated this proposal may face the toughest scrutiny from the conservative school board.
"It's always been a highly controversial proposal that previously has not fared well in discussion," board member Joseph Barse said later during an interview. "This year, it will probably face an even tougher fight."
School officials estimate that the cost of adding the counselors would be $623,000 a year. Currently, 20 full-time counselors and one half-time counselor work in 29 elementary schools. The superintendent's recommendation is to hire an additional 30 full-time counselors and one half-time counselor. Each would spend half a day in one of the system's 100 elementary schools. School closings will reduce the current number of elementary schools from 122 to 100 in the next academic year.
Over the last several weeks, the board has voted to close 28 schools at a savings of more than $6 million.
"It seems to me to be an egregious error to advocate adding counselors," said parent and Howard University education professor Leon Jones at last week's meeting. "Why are we looking at adding more of these positions when the school board is closing schools left and right?
"Counselors are doing jobs that teachers should be doing," Jones added.
The chairwoman of the elementary policy revision group, Joan Israel, conceded teachers could counsel students. But, she stressed, teachers already are overburdened with duties and do not have the time to help students with personal problems, such as a parent's divorce or drug and alcohol abuse. For these reasons, putting counselors in the schools is the most important recommendation in the policy, said Israel, principal of Wyngate Elementary School in Bethesda.
School board member Blair Ewing, in an interview, defended expenditures for new programs while closing schools.
"I don't think there is any logical inconsistency in funding these progrmas and closing schools. . . . I've always been of the belief that the purpose of closing schools is not to save money exclusively," Ewing said. "School closings also can generate savings that can be reinvested in programs."
While counseling is the policy committee's priority, spokesman Muir said full-day kindergarten probably will receive the strongest support from the superintendent's office. Currently 20 full-day kindergartens are in operation, most of them in lower-income areas. Earlier, Muir had said that in the schools with full-time programs, teachers have noticed a marked improvement in students' learning and readiness for first grade.
"It's like a built-in Head Start program," Muir said, referring to the federal program started in 1965 that enrolled economically disadvantaged preschoolers before the normal starting age.
Israel, who has taught in schools with full-day kindergarten programs, agreed. "As a principal and a teacher, I know there is no question that the child who is enrolled in a full-day program has a distinct advantage over the child who has not. I have seen that difference."
"In all my time," Israel said in response to one parent who questioned whether a 5-year-old's capacity to learn is minimal after three hours, "I have never seen a child who would not have profited from a full-day program."
Under the superintendent's recommendation, the program would be phased in over three years, eventually costing between $1 million and $2 million annually. In the first year, 46 full-day kindergarten classes would be added in 29 schools.
Anticipating attacks on his proposals, Andrews defended funding new or improved programs. "There will be a great temptation . . . however, to 'defer' program improvements and to make even deeper cuts in nonclassroom areas," Andrews said. "(But) each year that needed program improvements are deferred, between 5,000 and 7,000 young people miss forever an education opportunity they need."
Another proposal in the policy sure to cause controversy, albeit not of a financial nature, is a suggestion that students go home early one day a week to give teachers additional planning time. The four other days would be extended to make up for the lost time.
Israel said recent changes in the curriculum and already cluttered class schedules do not provide enough time for teachers to get together to discuss how to teach the changes or to confer about students' progress. Parents at the meeting argued that the early dismissal could cause disruptions in baby-sitting schedules for families where both parents work.
"It is true that parents count on school to provide about six hours of supervision a day, but it is also true that parents believe their first priority is in quality education," Israel said. "I run a pretty good school, but I'd do a heck of a better job if I could talk to my teachers for a solid block of time each week."
Public hearings on the policy, which could be implemented beginning in September 1982, will be held Jan. 18. Public hearings on the budget will be held Dec. 9 and 10.