TWO OF the region's new school superintendents--Iris T. Metts in Prince George's County and Jerry D. Weast in Montgomery--have presented aggressive budgets for the coming fiscal year that require some difficult political choices but in our judgment deserve strong support. Both seek sizable funding increases, but the money would not be spread evenly among their schools. They propose to concentrate it on children in the lower grades and, in Montgomery's case, on children in lower-income, lower-achieving schools as well. Much of it would be used to reduce class size. That's how the superintendents are betting they can have the greatest long-term effect on school and student performance, and each makes a good case.
But the politics are hard. Parents and neighborhoods whose children would not directly benefit are bound to be less than cheerful. Promises to try in the future to achieve comparable reductions in class sizes in other grades and/or higher performing schools remain just promises.
Elected leaders in both counties, while generally praising their superintendents' proposals, are meanwhile already warning that their requests--Dr. Weast seeks $1.2 billion in operating funds, Dr. Metts more than $1 billion--will have to be cut. The cuts may be less if state aid goes up, as Gov. Glendening wants. But there's no talk of tax increases, only of accelerating tax cuts.
Significant cuts in these budgets would make it all but impossible to have the impacts the superintendents envision. Both counties thus face a difficult choice: They find more money or allow their school systems to fall behind.
In Montgomery, Superintendent Weast proposes to spend $81.2 million more than last year, an increase of 7.3 percent. Most of that increase--$51 million--is to cover continued enrollment growth, agreements negotiated with employees, inflation and other required costs. That leaves about $30.2 million for what the superintendent considers to be the most pressing needs. Dr. Weast intends to spend some money on teacher training as well as reduce some class sizes; the smaller classes will do little good unless teachers are properly prepared, he observes.
This year's budget proposal calls for expanding all-day kindergarten into the 30 neediest schools over two budget years; and starting this fall, class sizes in the neediest kindergarten-through-second-grades would be reduced to 17 students in a three-year schedule.
In Prince George's, Superintendent Metts is asking for a $126 million operating budget increase as part of a five-year improvement plan. Emphasis would be on intensifying instruction of the youngest students in basic skills: math, language skills and writing. The superintendent also is calling for all-day kindergarten in every elementary school, smaller class sizes and longer class periods for K through 3.
Heavy spending for school renovation and construction is in the offing for both counties, where enrollments keep swelling. Dr. Metts seeks $2.9 billion to build 26 new schools and renovate dozens of existing facilities while getting rid of 410 classroom trailers.
With more kids to teach, more money must be found, before even talking about more or faster improvements. Dr. Weast notes that with his budget the school system would be spending $182 less per student in this budget than it did in 1991. Yet in the long run, neither jurisdiction can prosper if it does not support its schools. If this is the best a county can do in flush times, what can people expect when the going gets rough?