One after another, teachers, students and parents--some of them in tears--stood before the Prince George's County Board of Education on Thursday night pleading for the preservation of programs slated for severe cuts or elimination.
"Are the children in Prince George's County worth any less than those in other counties?" asked Sylvia Williams, whose daughter attended an alternative high school after she was expelled. The school, along with several other programs, had been slated for elimination as the school board sought to find a way to pay for teacher raises and incentives without busting the budget. But after hearing from many parents and others in the community, the school board tried to find a middle ground on budget trims.
The board, determined to carve out $7 million to increase teacher salaries, was left with the tough task of choosing which programs would have to be scaled back. As they listened to the community stake claims to beloved programs, the board shifted money around in the final moments before the 8 to 1 vote to approve the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
"My heart says that we have to do what we can to save our schools," Minerva Sanders, president of the Prince George's County Council of PTAs, said as the board prepared to decide how to spend its $876 million budget for public schools.
The board did eliminate door-to-door busing for magnet school students, who now will be transported from centralized bus stops. It also trimmed funds for custodial services, which could lead to layoffs, and cut funds for administrative offices.
The school board also deferred a study to determine whether children of different races have equal access to the best school facilities. The study was mandated by a settlement of a 25-year-old desegregation lawsuit.
But several programs were retained after board members listened to the eleventh-hour entreaties from county residents.
Among the programs preserved was the Community-Based Classroom, a school where high school dropouts can return to get their diplomas.
"My bright and intelligent daughter dropped out of high school . . . and sometimes parents just can't reach their children," said Pat Brent, whose daughter Melissa Brent in 1989 attended the Community-Based Classroom alternative school in Lanham, which was slated for elimination. "She now teaches in your county, and I believe that direct turnaround was due to what they gave her."
The board also decided to retain the William S. Schmidt Outdoor Education Center, a camp in Brandywine where students learn about the environment.
"I've seen that camp go from a few pitch and pup tents on the ground to the camp it is today," said Margaret Boles, who has taught for 30 years in the county.
The board had contemplated a $3 million reduction in a $24 million discretionary fund used in the majority of county schools to hire teachers, buy books and purchase trailers for extra classrooms. But board members instead decided against the cut after several parents voiced concern that such a move would make it harder for the 128,000-student school system to absorb any additional students and could cause class sizes to increase.
"The bottom line is that class size at no school in the county should be permitted to rise," said Alan Krupnick, who has daughters attending University Park Elementary and Hyattsville Middle schools.
Among the other programs preserved were the fine arts festivals and honors performances; software and other materials for libraries; and alternative schools in Oxon Hill and Bladensburg.
Project Success, a $1.9 million dropout-prevention program that was slated for elimination, was dramatically scaled back. Next year, the program will receive $400,000.
Marilynn Bland (Clinton), the one board member who voted against the budget, said no programs should be trimmed for the sake of raises.
The board already had negotiated a $24 million cost-of-living and step-scale pay increase for teachers, and it initially had earmarked $17 million more for raises to make salaries more competitive with neighboring counties. But County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) funded $52 million less than requested, largely because he did not want to pay for the raises before receiving a detailed plan for how they would be allocated.
By the end of the summer, school board members hope to persuade Curry and the County Council to at least match the $7 million they allocated for salary increases by making other cuts.
Many school officials say higher salaries and other incentives are essential to help the school system keep and attract talented teachers. Teachers in neighboring jurisdictions make $2,000 to $5,000 more.
By mid-August, 1,400 teaching positions will have to be filled, and school officials say hundreds of uncertified teachers will have to be hired. By the end of the 1998 school year, nearly 11 percent of the county's 8,000 teachers left the school system, far more than the 6 percent turnover rate nationally.
About 18 percent of the county's 8,000 teachers lack full state certification, the highest percentage in the state. State officials also are eyeing a possible takeover of 12 schools because of poor academic performance.
CAPTION: Jerome Clark, outgoing school superintendent, approves the balanced operating budget for the 1999-2000 school year.