Prince George's schools chief Iris T. Metts has taken the first steps toward slashing her own request for a $256 million increase in the school system's fiscal 2004 budget.
Metts last week outlined $118 million in cuts to her proposed spending plan, slicing off $13 million to reduce class sizes for grades 4 to 6, and $2 million to create magnet programs at three high schools.
But the changes to the 252-page budget document are not yet set in stone.
"The reality is that we are . . . required to make compromises and choose between difficult decisions," school board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) told audience members during last week's board meeting on the proposed spending plan.
Parents said they were concerned about the possible harm to class-size reduction. In Metts's original budget proposal, the student-teacher ratio in grades 4 to 6 would decrease to 25 to 1. Some board members asked Metts to consider restoring at least some of the money, even if it means reducing classes in one or two of the grades, where class sizes often reach or exceed 30 students.
"I personally believe we should move forward with class-size reduction because there is some research that supports that lower class sizes help," said board member Judy Mickens-Murray (Upper Marlboro).
Metts had originally proposed a $1.36 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. She said she would need the extra $256 million to reduce class sizes, continue mandatory summer school and all-day kindergarten, and increase teacher salaries in the 135,000-student school system, whose students often perform among the worst in the state on standardized tests.
But board members and county officials immediately said they could not approve such a large spending increase -- not with the state projecting a $1.2 billion budget deficit for the next fiscal year. Board members asked Metts to reduce her original request by close to $160 million before they send it to the County Council for approval.
Last Thursday, Metts provided board members with a stack of paperwork to explain the reasoning behind her revised budget proposal.
"We had a very deliberate and thoughtful process in which we considered where we want to take the school district," Metts told the board members.
Still, Metts began to focus on the cuts. She withdrew a request for $65 million to expand technology, scaling back a plan to spend $18.6 million on a new student information system. Now, she is recommending $6.6 million for the new system.
Her effort to add almost 68 teachers to high schools -- at a cost of nearly $5 million -- could also be pulled out of the budget. Metts also recommended cutting out a request for 88 more teachers to deal with the expected enrollment growth, but school officials now say that money will probably be restored, and other cuts found.
She has also cut $17.4 million from the proposed budget for transportation of students with disabilities. Her original request called for $29.4 million for special education transportation.
Metts suggested decreasing the number of people working in the school system's equity and minority achievement office from six to one in order to save $520,000. Metts said she has not been satisfied with the quantity and types of reports produced by the office. "In my opinion, they have not been very productive," she said. "I just have to say it simple from a management point of view."
Instead, she said, all departments should be involved in trying to raise academic achievement among minority students.
On top of that, Metts said she has asked her executive staff to submit plans for cutting 10 percent of their budget requests for their departments.
"All the cuts are difficult. It's like pick your poison," said Howard Tutman, president of the Prince George's County Council of PTAs.
One of the most painful cuts, if approved, could be the delay in restructuring the school system's magnet programs. Metts had originally proposed creating magnet programs at Potomac, Northwestern and DuVal high schools.
Board members say they do not have enough money to overhaul the magnets, which were originally designed to desegregate schools but which have since been viewed as having lost their purpose. Board members have relied on a $14 million state grant to pay for the program, but next year that money will be rolled into a $42 million increase in funding that the state has pledged. Board members had expected to receive both amounts from the state.
"With our budget constraints right now, I don't see where it's prudent or practical to start new magnet programs," Mickens-Murray said.
The board will hold another work session on its budget at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Sasscer Administration Building in Upper Marlboro.