- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

Principals, teachers and parents are waiting to see where the budget ax will fall as the Prince George's County school board prepares to slash $52 million from Chief Executive Officer Iris T. Metts' spending plan in the next week.
The board has until the end of this month to trim the budget to $1.04 billion from the $1.14 billion budget Mrs. Metts proposed. The state is giving the county an additional $48 million, leaving the board to trim the remaining amount.
There could be even more to cut if the board accepts a plan Mrs. Metts proposed this week to reduce class sizes a pressing issue for county schools that have more than 30 students in many classrooms. Under a draft plan board members received at a work session this week, reductions in class sizes would be phased in over the next few years at a cost of about $3 million in the first year.
Reducing class sizes "puts us ahead to get more money through the [additional state funding] formula," said Beatrice Tignor, president of the school board. It could actually help bring more money into the school system in the long run because the board would have a clear plan they could ask legislators to fund, she said.
Although Mrs. Tignor had not polled other board members on the issue, she said, "I definitely see the board accepting it."
The plan would begin by reducing average second- and third-grade classes in comprehensive schools from 30.58 students per class to 25. Grades four, five and six would get smaller classes in 2004, followed the next year by seventh and eighth grades. Kindergarten and grade one, which already have average class sizes of 22 students, would be further reduced to 20 students in 2006.
"Phasing in is better than nothing, as long as there is a viable plan," said county PTA president Howard Tutman. "This is a good start."
The proposal was welcomed by many parents at comprehensive schools who have been protesting a proposed cut in teacher positions. To fund class-size reductions, Mrs. Metts has suggested cutting 144 teacher positions and slashing half the work force of the peer-mediation program.
Suggestions are just that suggestions, school system spokeswoman Athena Ware said. "The board asked for different scenarios on where the additional monies could be cut from the budget," she said, adding that the number of teacher positions would be increased by reducing class sizes.
But the board still has some tough decisions ahead. Falling under the cuts proposed by Mrs. Metts are more than 200 new and existing staff positions. She also suggested reductions in funds for information technology, special education and transportation.
At the last two board meetings, public speakers have urged the board to retain funding for information technology and peer mediation. Mrs. Tignor said the board would not make drastic cuts in any single department. "We will have to take a little bit out of everything," she said.
Members say they are learning as they go, but some county observers say the board is trying to make a statement by reducing class sizes without really addressing community concerns over the cuts.
They also argue that most members have failed to ask tough questions on the budget and have made suggestions that are "politically naive."
A proposal last week by members Dean Sirjue and Judy Mickens Murray that teachers consider lowering their salary-increase demands was met with outrage by teachers and parents. At this week's meeting, Mr. Sirjue retracted that suggestion.
Parent Jacques Chevalier, who opposed an appointed board, said he believed the board so far was doing a commendable job. "They were asking the right questions, given that they have been around just a couple of weeks," he said.
Still, some say it is important that the board dig around some more.
County administrators' union chief Doris Reed said boards in the past had never approached the people who would be affected by cuts. She said this board could get some valuable input by approaching them and other employees unions before finalizing the budget.

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