Smaller class sizes. More classroom aides for kindergarten classes. Higher pay for school bus drivers and nurses.

One by one they made their way to the microphone at Wednesday night's public forum on the St. Mary's County schools budget for fiscal 2001. In the three to five minutes each was allotted, parents, teachers, principals, students and residents simply interested in the state of public education told the school board what should be in that budget.

Nearly 100 people crowded into the public meeting room at the Carter State Office Building in Leonardtown, many of them standing during the entire two-hour meeting. Their goal was simple: Give the Board of Education a few things to chew on as it begins negotiations on the budget, a sometimes grueling process that won't conclude until late next spring with a final vote by the county commissioners.

School board members, with new chairman John K. Parlett Jr. at the helm and school Superintendent Patricia M. Richardson sitting in, listened to each speaker, jotted down notes and said nearly nothing. It was the school board's turn to listen, not to talk, Parlett explained to the audience.

Board members heard an earful from several school bus drivers, who said their morale is nearly as low as their pay, which puts them among the worst-paid drivers in the state, they said. It wasn't the first time the bus drivers had made that point before the school board; a year ago they listed the same complaints at the board's fall budget hearing.

The bus drivers do not work directly for the school system; instead, the schools use independent contractors, who in turn hire and pay the drivers. The contractors provide for driver compensation, fuel, bus purchases and maintenance, but no health insurance or other benefits for the drivers. Contrary to a common industry practice, bus driver salaries do not increase with experience, the drivers said.

"A pay scale needs to be started next school year and funded in each bus contract," said Don Ervin, one of the drivers who testified. "The students and parents deserve to have the best for a bus driver behind the wheel, and you can make the difference by seeing that it happens."

Marcia Harris told the board that the $10.32 she earns per hour is not enough to support herself and her 9-year-old daughter. After taxes, Harris said she takes home $982 a month, $700 of which goes toward rent. When she gets sick, she can't go to the doctor, she said.

"I have health problems, but I can't go to the doctor because I have no insurance," she said.

Harris said she does not want to leave her job because she has grown attached to the students she drives around. "I love my kids. I've seen my kids get hurt. I've seen my kids go through breakups. But we need more money," she said, drawing loud applause from the audience.

The board also heard from several school nurses who voiced similar complaints.

With half a dozen colleagues surrounding her, Amy Ward, a nurse at Esperanza Middle School, told the board that most of the school nurses work for the schools as independent contractors and receive no health insurance or paid leave.

"Most of the time we're the first to arrive and the last to leave the school," she said. "School nurses are a vital link to making sure that our kids are at their desks and in good health. Why . . . do we not receive benefits?"

Dennis Grable, an eighth-grader at Leonardtown Middle School, had his own list of requests, which he typed up and handed to each board member before heading to the microphone.

Schools need current textbooks, he said. "Many of our books don't address the 1980s and 1990s," he said. "During this time, many historic events occurred, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and Desert Storm, which are not mentioned in some books."

And St. Mary's computers are just not good enough, the youngster said. "We should use Windows 95 or 98," he said. "I bet the local stores would like to give you a good package deal on computers and software."

Other requests at the hearing included more paraprofessionals to work in the schools' expanded media centers, newer library books and additional guidance counselors.

Richardson will present her proposed budget for fiscal 2001 at the board's Jan. 19 meeting.