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Teacher cuts approved as part of Pr. George’s school budget

The Prince George’s County school board unanimously approved a $1.6 billion budget early Tuesday morning that would cut as many as 700 teaching positions, yet salvage some transportation and education programs that residents pleaded to be saved from the fiduciary guillotine.

The three-hour long meeting ended just after midnight, following a last-minute effort to maintain staffing at a popular science center by limiting funding for an upcoming project with Prince George’s Community College.

The project, known as “middle college,” is set to begin this fall with a group of 100 high school freshmen taking classes at the community college. Ideally, they’d transition fully into the college setting, receiving an associate’s degree along with their high school diploma.

More than a $1 million was set aside for busing these 100 students. Aghast at the transportation costs, Vice Chairwoman Donna Hathaway Beck introduced a measure to cap funding at $1,900 per student – the average cost for busing to other specialty and magnet programs. The money freed up was then transferred to fund an amendment by Peggy Higgins to keep the 12-person teaching corps at Howard B. Owens Science Center, a stand alone learning center that caters to 32,000 K-12 students each year.

“My purpose in making this motion has really been amplified by the number of speakers” who supported the program at the meeting, Higgins said.

The vote was the last major hurdle during the budget season. The county council still must approve the budget, but the move is likely to be a formality. County government representatives have been meeting schools officials over the past three months to hash out differences in priorities in educational spending.

The cut in the fiscal 2012 budget would be a 2 percent decrease from last year. The school system has slashed costs steadily since 2008, in the aftermath of declining property values and dwindling enrollment.

In that time, the number of students has decreased by nearly 5,000, to a projected 125,000 next year. More than 3,000 jobs have been cut in that period, about half of them teachers.

Under the proposed budget, Prince George’s schools would also lose nearly 100 librarian positions, while athletic directors would have their hours reduced. Class sizes would increase by one student in most grades.

Officials have tried to soften the sting by offering a retirement package to long-standing employees. Nearly 550 workers, from teachers to bus drivers, have applied for the benefit. The final tally won’t be available until sometime this summer.

The budget ends a months-long process of public input and political wrangling. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. proposed a gloomy budget this winter that sliced popular programs, including ecology learning center Camp Schmidt and a program for students falling behind in reading skills.

Hite’s budget also proposed to end busing for magnet schools, long seen as a way to ensure socioeconomic diversity in classes throughout the county. Those moves would have helped close a $155 million budget gap.

In February, the school board passed the budget begrudgingly with the intent of pressuring the county and state to offer more money. The plan worked, somewhat. The state and county provided an additional $10 million to save the busing programs and Camp Schmidt, as well as to give enough to retool the program for students who needed help in reading.

Other programs weren’t spared. Early education programs will be reduced to a half-day. High school students now have to pay a $50 athletic fee.

Coming into the meeting, Monday’s budget seemed all but certain to pass. Yet the meeting was marked by impassioned testimony of parents, teachers and community members begging the board to reconsider.

Yvette Mimms, a District Heights mother who has a son at Charles H. Flowers High School, pleaded with the board to spare the school from cutting 11 teachers there, including eight in core subjects.

“These are going to impact our students,” Mimms said. “My son wants to be a pharmacist and he won’t be able to take an AP biology class. We are parents and we are concerned.”

The school system is far from alone in having to make serious cuts. Montgomery County’s public school system is cutting about 600 positions, including 34 librarians and 51 staff development teachers, although it expects enrollment to climb by 3,300 in the fall. In the past four years, Montgomery schools have lost nearly 1,300 positions.

Similar squeezes are being felt across the country. The bright spots have been Northern Virginia, where the housing market has recovered more quickly, and school spending is making a comeback. The education budget in the District is set to grow 12 percent, mostly to cover salary increases and special education spending.

Even with its approval, school board members were none too pleased about their situation – but said they had to submit to the economics of the situation.

“It is outrageous that we have to struggle with this,” Johnson said. “No matter what, it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. So we just got to get moving.”

Robert Samuels is a national political reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, policy and people. He previously covered social issues in the District of Columbia.

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