- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2008

School districts across the region are preparing to cut most nonessential classrooms needs - from bus routes to class trips - as a result of budget deficits created by the troubled national economy.

“It’s going to be a daunting task to continue quality education,” said Patricia Wirth, who has two grandchildren attending Fairview Elementary School in Fairfax County and is a member of the county council’s parent-teacher associations. “It’s pretty scary.”

The county’s roughly 197-school system is expected to be among the hardest-hit in the region, along with Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

School systems across the country are facing similar situations - some with more severe consequences.

The Boston public school system is considering closing schools to save money. Superintendent Carol Johnson is expected this week to present a proposal to the school board about closing or merging schools, and a final decision is expected in October.

In New York’s Westchester County, the Mount Vernon school district this summer eliminated 115 jobs and temporarily cut funding for high school sports. Last-minute private donations - including $100,000 from actor Denzel Washington - and reworking the budget saved the fall sports programs but the status of the winter sports remains uncertain.

Parents in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, like others across the country, are again this year being asked to provide schools with staples such as soap and tissue paper.

In Virginia, Fairfax County faces a $430 million budget deficit in fiscal 2010, and the county’s budget director has projected a more than 4 percent decrease in revenue next year.

The school board and the county’s board of supervisors began holding community meetings last month to gather “feedback, suggestions and comments from the taxpayers about how their money is spent,” said school board Chairman Dan Storck.

School board member Phillip Niedzielski-Eichner said officials are hoping to find as much as $200 million in budget savings as part of a top-to-bottom review that aims to keep academic programs and school-safety measures intact amid the coming cuts.

“Pretty much everything is on the table,” he said.

Tough choices

Deputy County Executive Edward L. Long said that declining property values and the crisis on Wall Street have cut into the county’s main funding sources and that cuts are possible in major budget areas such as the school system.

“We’re going to have to look at everything from small-ticket items to big-ticket items,” he said.

The proposed cuts follow a recent round of deep cuts.

The county passed the school system’s $2.2 billion fiscal 2009 budget only after the school board made additional reductions of roughly $40 million.

Officials increased class sizes, reduced central-office support to schools and were forced to set aside an additional $5.3 million because of rising fuel costs - measures that may be necessary again next year.

Michele Menapace said her daughter, who attends Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, wasn’t able to take a preferred elective because of the increased class size. She said officials will have to determine the county’s educational priorities during the budget cuts.

“I’d love to own a Mercedes, but what would I be willing to take away from my family to get one?” she said. “That’s what this will come down to.”

Maryland faces a roughly $1 billion shortfall next year.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, is expected in the coming weeks to present $250 million to $300 million in cuts to the state’s current budget to help offset a $432 million revenue shortfall and a larger deficit in the budget he submits in January.

The anticipated cuts have sparked calls for the state to decrease funding to local jurisdictions.

But David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said passing on state budget cuts to localities likely will result in major cuts to public safety and education among the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore city.

“Why they’re envisioning the counties as a target for resolving the state’s fiscal problems continues not to make sense to me,” he said.

Thinking big and small

In Prince George’s County, teachers at schools classified as disadvantaged by the federal government have been able to get supplies donated through a partnership with World Vision.

But the roughly 218-school system faced more than $100 million in budget cuts during fiscal 2008, and $14 million is planned to be eliminated from the 2009 fiscal budget.

The county also recently authorized placing employees on two-week furloughs to help close a $57 million deficit.

“The fact that these furloughs were put into place creates a significant risk for even further budget cuts,” schools spokesman John White said.

Each administrative department reduced its budget by 10 percent because of the cuts. The school system also instituted a temporary hiring freeze this year and eliminated all staff vacancies.

Montgomery County public schools also had to impose restrictions on expenditures for fiscal 2009.

The county has a projected $251 million budget gap for fiscal 2010, and the school system said all vacancies except for essential personnel such as principals, special educators and security-team leaders were frozen.

Karen Smith, who has a child at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School and another at Westland Middle School, said she also is worried about large class sizes.

“There’s a direct correlation between the cuts in the school budget and these huge classroom sizes,” said Mrs. Smith, also an officer of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations.

“We need to see this problem solved.”

Other Virginia jurisdictions are taking a wait-and-see approach to the coming budget process, as state and county officials determine revenue numbers that will affect local cash flows.

Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, has warned that a round of coming budget cuts to help close a shortfall could reach nearly $3 billion and include cuts to public education, though likely not until next year.

“School divisions remain on the table, like anything else,” Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said.

“And the governor is well-aware of the concerns everyone has, but we have budget issues to solve.”

Arlington County schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos said a reduction in state funding would force the 37-school system to look at curbing discretionary spending in its budget. She also said the system is “not going to mess with teacher contracts,” but other things would be vulnerable.

“It could be instructional materials that haven’t been ordered yet,” Miss Erdos said. “It could be curtailing field trips.”

Planning ahead

Alexandria officials said the city may face a revenue shortfall of $8 million in its $542 million general fund budget for fiscal 2009, largely because of an expected 5 percent decline in real estate assessments. Bruce Johnson, the city’s budget director, said officials have identified cuts to government departments to close the gap but have not asked the school system to trim spending.

Amy Carlini, a spokeswoman for Alexandria’s 17-school system, said it’s “fortunate” that schools won’t face cuts this year, though they’re likely to come during the fiscal 2010 budget process.

“We’re beginning the process for planning for the next school year and we probably will have to make some cuts,” she said. “But it’s still too soon to determine where those cuts will be made.”

In Prince William County, officials adopted a fiscal 2009 budget that is nearly $40 million less than initially proposed because of such factors as declining student enrollment and a reduction in sales-tax projections.

David S. Cline, associate superintendent for finance and support services, said the system is waiting for revised enrollment numbers and for how much revenue will come from the county as officials look to next year’s budget process.

Loudoun County schools spokesman Wayde Byard said officials are operating with a $9 million budget surplus from last year but have still taken some cost-saving measures.

The system has mandated that drivers of its 737 buses let the vehicles idle for no more than three minutes to save on fuel costs, and officials also scrapped a plan to switch their bus fleet to biodiesel fuel.

In the District, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said council members will work with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi to “take whatever action is necessary” to address a $131 million revenue shortfall in fiscal 2009.

Mr. Gray said the council is prepared to consider solutions at its legislative meeting Tuesday. Fenty spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said schools would not be a preferable place to trim spending, “but we have to take a look at the numbers.”

“We want to apprise residents early of any impact this drop in revenue might have on services, if that proves the case,” said Mr. Gray, a Democrat.

Tom LoBianco, David C. Lipscomb and Ian Bauder contributed to this report.

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