With county officials already talking about the need to trim this year's school budget, the school system is gearing up for what may be its toughest year in memory.
Earlier this month, Executive Robert R. Neall asked departments to voluntarily cut spending because of an anticipated $10 million budget shortfall. The school system, working with a $341 million budget, is being asked to cut about $5.5 million.
That was not good news for school officials, who already were debating whether they had been given enough money to avoid cutting school programs. Now, they say program cuts may be unavoidable.
Such items as driver's education, 80 permanent substitute teachers and school activity buses, which barely escaped the budget ax last year, may be in jeopardy again.
"The budget will be a hot item this year," school board member Dorothy Chaney predicted. "In some cases, we will not be able to maintain what we've had in previous years. Programs arecertainly going to have to be looked at in the near future. We're going to have to do more with less."
Added Chaney, "We need parents to be supportive."
Principals were warned they may have to share school custodians and reduce maintenance standards.
A hiring freezeimposed for the second consecutive year means that about 60 custodial positions will remain vacant. Several positions for secretaries will also go unfilled. On the professional level, a teacher specialist for physical education and athletics will not be filled (although a coordinator of athletics is expected to be hired).
The school systemhas hired 170 new teachers, 63 of whom are new to the profession.
Unfinished business between the school board and four unions representing custodians and bus drivers, principals, teachers and secretaries has further muddied the waters.
Contracts expired June 30 but have been extended until September, when union members will be able to vote on the board's proposals.
The board and three of the four unions faced an impasse over such items as benefits and health and safety issues. While the principals' union did not declare an impasse, little progress has been made in resolving an issue from the previous year, in which principals are seeking a greater pay differential between themselves and teachers.
"The impasse issues have been decided, and the board's decisions have been disseminated to the unions," saidDonna diGrazia, the school system's director of staff relations. "The board is waiting for the (unions') memberships to be given the information so they can vote whether to ratify.
"Things that needed tobe decided before the opening of school have been decided, and I don't feel it will interfere with school. It will go on as usual."
Few aspects of school operations, however, will emerge from the summer unscathed. New state requirements under the Maryland School Performance Program, which establishes minimum achievement levels for both students and schools, means more pressure to ensure attendance levels are up and test scores are high. For the first time this November, the state will issue report cards on individual schools that will includetest scores and demographics by gender and race.
Teachers have been told to emphasize thinking skills and develop higher levels of problem-solving abilities in their students. And school officials will be faced with the delicate task of ensuring all students receive equaleducational opportunities, regardless of where they live or attend classes.
"It's going to be a difficult year," School SuperintendentLarry L. Lorton said. "We will still continue to sharpen our focus on how to extend equity to all students and raise all students to their highest level. It's a never-ending battle."
"We have to double our efforts," board Vice President Vincent Leggett said. "First-time pass rates on the functional tests for ninth-graders and attendance have to be improved. We're going to have to remain vigilant in our quest for equity in schools, while trying to find a balance between excellence and equity."
Other areas to watch as the school year begins:
* For the last few months, board members have been trying to mendfences with the County Council. The council supports a massive redistricting plan and is denying the board money to finish North County High School until the plan is considered. County budget officials estimate the redistricting could save between $80 million and $100 million by redrawing school boundary lines and filling vacant seats insteadof building new schools.
The board is reviewing the county's proposal and will issue its own recommendations this year.
* County students should expect to be reminded of the dangers of non-prescription anabolic steroids in locker rooms, gymnasiums and other athletic facilities because of a new state law requiring that signs be posted.
* The beginning of school also means lots of work for construction crews. Students from Severna Park Elementary will be housed in Severna Park Middle while their school is being renovated, and Eastport Elementary students will share a wing of Annapolis Middle.
Major construction projects this year include asbestos removal at Lindale Junior, the permanent site for North County Senior. The Center for AppliedTechnology South in Edgewater is being expanded. Walls will be put up on the second floor of Annapolis Senior.
Students from Odenton Elementary will return to their newly renovated school Tuesday. Two new wings were added, giving the school a gymnasium and music room as well as extra classrooms.