Superintendent John A. Murphy has imposed a spending freeze in the Prince George's County school system while officials search for ways to offset a $10 million deficit partially caused by higher fuel prices.
Under the freeze, Murphy will approve spending only for salaries, transportation and other services necessary to keep schools functioning. Expenditures for items such as printing, travel, consulting and supplies that are not needed in the classroom are halted, spokeswoman Bonnie Jenkins said.
Prince George's has been hit particularly hard by the recent rise in fuel prices because the school system uses more than 1,000 buses in complying with a court-ordered desegregation program. The school system is projected to exceed its fuel budget for the current school year by $4 million.
The budget outlook is likely to drop along with the temperature as schools begin to use their furnaces. In addition to increased fuel spending, the school system stopped receiving $4 million in federal start-up money for the magnet school program and overestimated the carryover from last year's budget by $2 million, county budget director Jim Beall said.
"We have a very serious problem," Beall said. "We are going to have to look at every possible means of cutting the budget without affecting the quality of education we offer. Unfortunately, we are in for some pretty rough times."
Although school officials have not discussed spending revisions, board members this week suggested an array of possible cuts, including eliminating field trips, cutting back on extra-curricular buses, scaling down school maintenance and turning down thermostats in school buildings.
"I am sure that there are going to be a lot of cooler classrooms this year," board member Catherine M. Burch said. "We will have to just encourage kids to wear sweaters and do a few calisthenics during the day to keep warm."
Board members also are reviewing the system's elaborate busing schedule. "We have a staggered schedule among some of our schools that sometimes requires buses to go into the same neighborhood twice in the morning and then twice again in the afternoon," Burch said. "And it is not uncommon to see a bus with only eight or 10 kids on board. We may have to change that."
Spending will be frozen for at least two weeks while budget officials review measures to whittle a $553 million budget that Murphy characterized as "bare bones" when it took effect in July.
Murphy was not available for comment yesterday, but other school officials and board members pledged that budget cuts will not affect salaries or the quality of education.
This is the first time the school system has faced such a substantial budget shortfall since the mid-1980s, when the TRIM property tax initiative curtailed government funding for schools.
County Executive Parris N. Glendening, facing a $49.9 million deficit in the county's almost $1 billion budget -- more than half of which is for schools -- is considering slashing spending in most departments with the exception of education and law enforcement. "The schools," Glendening said, "will have to make do with what they already have."