This is a bad time for the economy to stall and budget cuts to begin. More students with greater needs are enrolled in Montgomery County schools than ever before.

The challenges are immense. In the past year alone, the number of non-English-speaking students in county schools has increased by 920 -- nearly half of the system's total enrollment growth of 2,059. The most urbanized region of the school system -- stretching from Takoma Park to Germantown -- represents 48 percent of the county's elementary school enrollment but 75 percent of all African American and Hispanic students, 75 percent of all English-language learners and 80 percent of all low-income children receiving meal support in those grades.

The new federal No Child Left Behind Act requires yearly progress toward state proficiency goals for each group in each school. But unless reforms move forward, this goal will be tough to achieve.

The county's tradition of excellence becomes harder to maintain each year. Montgomery still has the highest average SAT scores in the state (1095), and this year its highest percentage of students ever took the SAT (81 percent). More of Montgomery's students are completing Algebra I or higher-level math courses in middle school (49 percent), and a higher percentage of students is taking honors and Advanced Placement courses in high school (64 percent). These areas of improvement demonstrate the continuing strength of the county's school system.

But at nearly 139,000 students and growing, the system's costs -- for more teachers and support staff, negotiated salaries, health insurance, student transportation, special education and other basic services -- are increasing. Important reforms in early childhood education, mathematics, reading and other areas -- including full-day kindergarten and class-size reductions -- are in progress. New textbooks next year are critical to student success.

The growth in enrollment is immense. In the past four years, county schools gained more children (11,039) than there are students in nine Maryland school districts. We have more students than all but 17 other school systems in the country. Enrollment is projected to grow to 140,554 students next year and reach more than 144,800 students by 2008. Based on last year's birth rate, one baby is born to a Montgomery County mother every 40 minutes.

Demographic changes will continue. In 2001 half of all statewide births of Asian American children and 43 percent of all statewide births of Hispanic children occurred in Montgomery County. The county's immigrant population has increased at twice the rate of other Maryland school districts. Montgomery enrolls nearly half of Maryland's English-language learners. One of every four to five students in the system receives federal meal support because of poverty -- in some schools, it is nearly every child.

Even with this enrollment growth, in the past three years Montgomery has cut its school budget by $51.4 million. Last year's spending freeze saved an additional $10 million. Another freeze was imposed this year. More cuts are expected, but the choices of where to cut are few. Administrative costs account for 2.1 percent of expenditures -- the lowest amount ever for this budget category.

Budget reductions can't continue indefinitely when the goal is to improve academic quality. Certainly, the changes in our enrollment mark a critical juncture in our school district's pursuit of higher standards and higher achievement. Indeed, we need to do more because the challenges are becoming so much greater.

-- Jerry D. Weast

is superintendent of the

Montgomery County public schools.