Montgomery County parents came before the county school board last week to repeat a familiar refrain: Put the children in smaller classes. And they said they would like to see it happen a lot sooner than the superintendent's latest budget proposal would allow.
Reductions in class size need to be "included fully in next year's budget rather than waiting to be phased in over time," Vicki Rafel of the Community Coalition for the Schools told the board on the first of three nights of hearings on Superintendent Harry Pitt's $575.9 million 1988-89 operating proposal. Rafel called reducing class size the "single most important service you can provide for every child in the system, no matter what their needs or abilities."
Three years ago the board set a long-range goal of reducing the average number of students in the classroom -- currently in the upper twenties at some elementary schools and well into the thirties at secondary schools -- to a low of 21.4 for the youngest students and no more than 32 for the older ones. But in the past two years, money to lower classroom averages has been trimmed as a result of County Council funding.
Pitt is asking for total increases of $55.1 million for the year starting next July, in large part to help open seven new upcounty schools in the fall, pay for staff raises, enroll about 2,800 more students and add 324 employees to meet additional demand for services. He is seeking $3.8 million for improvements and additions to current school services, including 24 teachers hired specifically to help lower class size.
Bernice Steinhardt, president of the PTA at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School in Chevy Chase, said that schools serving diverse populations, including many students with limited English skills, need "classes that are small enough to afford all students the attention they need."
Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents more than 6,600 school system professionals, called the proposed budget improvements "woefully inadequate." He suggestd that Pitt was being "overly cautious" to avoid a repeat of last year's "bloody struggle" with the County Council over funding.
Simon said the budget "leaves too many classes and schools overcrowded," and cautioned that quick approval of it "would not be a victory for the school system." By spending an additional $2.5 million, he said, "your class-size goals could be met next year, only one year behind schedule." He said the county has "a real dollar surplus that could be invested in education next year."
"If we cannot make significant improvements in times of solid economic growth, when will it be possible to do so?" Simon said.
Diane Smith of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs told the school board that reducing class size "is still our number one priority -- far ahead of anything else," and urged members not to wait three years to meet goals. Smith noted that in a county survey of Montgomery residents last year, 58 percent said they would pay higher taxes to reduce class sizes.
Another often-repeated request at the hearings was for increases in money alloted for school counselors and psychologists.
Pitt is seeking to add 10 counselors to a system that is unable to provide counseling services to 18 of its 105 elementary schools and has part-time service at many facilities. With the additions of staff and new schools in the fall, four schools would still be without services, according to officials.
"Every year the job of the counselor increases in importance, mirroring the increased demands our society places on the schools," said Lee Ingram, speaking on behalf of PTAs in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area. "Counselors at the secondary level deal daily with life-threatening problems of suicide, child abuse and drug and alcohol abuse."
They must counsel an increasing number of foreign-born students and those in crisis situations and with special needs, Ingram said.
"Many of the children who now comprise our school population come from single-parent households where they are dealing with the anxieties associated with separation and divorce," said Bonnie Mettee, president of the PTA at Weller Road Elementary School in Silver Spring. "Add to this . . . the latchkey children and the normal pressures of growing up and you have unhappy, insecure children."
Pitt is also proposing to expand the current staff of 28 psychologists by five, a number many speakers said was inadequate for a system with more than 96,000 pupils. They said the pupil-psychologist ratio in Montgomery, at 3,400 pupils per psychologist, is not as good as the average for the area. In Fairfax County, which has the next highest ratio, there are 2,200 students per psychologist.
State officials have told the county that to comply with state and federal law, psychologists must participate in all testing for children with learning disabilities and other psychological problems before they can be placed in special education classes. As a result, "other needs are being slipped and some are not being met," said Janet Garrison, representing the council of PTAs.
At least 20 more psychologists need to be hired if services such as crisis intervention, suicide prevention and consultations are to continue, a spokesman for the Montgomery County School Psychologists Association told the board.
Speakers also urged the board to fund a centralized calling system for locating substitute teachers, an increase in the number of buses and qualified bus drivers, composition assistants to help prepare students for the Maryland writing test, improved maintenance of older schools, various programs for low-income students, driver education and other summer programs, computer equipment for handicapped students, and additional health room and security aides.
School board President Sharon DiFonzo said after the hearings that she still favored Pitt's conservative approach to spending, and said some additions probably would be made to the proposal.
"Harry's trying to walk a very difficult balance, between trying to address the system's needs without trying to hyper-extend the county economically and raise the red flags from the county executive and County Council -- and yet leave room for the board members to add on," she said.
The school board is scheduled to vote on the school budget Feb. 2, and the council will take up the board's recommendations next month.