Reeling from a sour economy, rising oil prices and a projected loss of state aid, Loudoun County school officials expect cuts in next year's budget will be the worst in more than a decade.

Officials of the 14,500-student system predicted the reductions could affect such areas as class sizes, athletics and programs for gifted and talented students, which until recently were considered untouchable.

They also fear the cuts, after years of increasing school budgets and generally improving test scores, might set back spending on academic programs.

"It is perhaps about to go backward. That is what's really alarming for people," said Sue Hurd, the school system's business manager. "I think it is everyone's sense {that} it's as bad this year as it has ever been."

Most school systems in the region face similar difficulties, said officials from Fairfax, Arlington and Prince George's counties. In addition to a squeeze from falling local tax revenue, Virginia schools expect to be hit next year by cuts of more than $122 million in state aid.

"I think we're going to have to look at the whole picture and then look at the least painful areas for cuts," said Bonnie Jenkins, a spokeswoman for Prince George's County who would not rule out cuts to instructional programs. "I think it's going to hit everyone."

Loudoun schools will need at least $11 million more in local taxes next year just to maintain the programs and services offered in its $95 million budget this year, and that doesn't include any pay raises, officials said. The school system expects to lose $4 million to $5 million in state aid, they said.

Since 1986, school spending has increased by about 10 percent a year.

School officials are reviewing 15 areas that could be cut to save $7.2 million, including elementary art and music, driver education, athletics, gifted and talented programs, summer school, physical education and other programs.

Loudoun School Board member Barbara B. D'Elia said the system may have to consider increasing the number of children in each class or charging rent on school books to help keep costs down.

"I'm alarmed," D'Elia told a standing-room-only audience of 150 at the board meeting yesterday. "I think we face a very real possibility of cuts . . . things I don't think we'll ever get back in this system."

Despite her warning, a procession of students, parents and educators took turns to urge the board to protect favorite programs from swimming teams and small schools to special education for the disabled and special teachers for the arts.

Bradford Mandell, a parent of a middle school student, said he would be willing to pay more taxes to maintain the quality of Loudoun schools. LaLonnie Jurenko, also a parent, said the system should save money on supplies to spend on teachers.

The Loudoun Education Association called for teacher pay raises. "Salaries must continue to improve in order to maintain good morale and attract dedicated educators," said Association President Kay Franklin. "Talented, committed professional teachers should not be asked to forgo their own economic well-being for the good of the county."

D'Elia, who considers herself a teachers' advocate, said she agreed with Franklin, but could not offer much hope. "It looks grim," she said.