Nearly 300 Baltimore County teachers have decided to cash in on a retirement bonus and will leave at the end of this school year, and with more likely to sign up before the April 30 deadline, class sizes are likely to rise next fall.
With a hiring freeze in place and 3,700 new students expected next year, the county's 24-to-1 teacher-pupil ratio is in jeopardy. But the effect larger classes might have on education is a matter of dispute.
"If you get 3,700 new kids, you basically have a high school, two middle schools, and five elementary schools with no staff," says Ed Veit, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.
But John D. O'Neill, a leader in the county's tax protest movement, says the county doesn't need to hire more teachers for the 3,700 new students. It would mean just one more child in each classroom countywide, he said.
County Executive Roger B. Hayden has said the county can't afford to hire teachers for the 3,700 incoming students.
The big question is whether the budget he submits Thursday will include money to replace teachers who retire now -- 5 percent of the county's 6,000 teachers.
Some parents are already worried about the quality of education in their children's schools.
Jean Manning is so concerned about increasing class sizes that she's pulling her daughter, Kristy, out of Cockeysville Middle School at the end of this school year.
"No matter how good a student you have, when you get up in the higher grades you can really lose a child's attention when you've got other kids in class who aren't paying attention," Mrs. Manning says.
Her older daughter, Jodie, 15, is a student at John Carroll School in Bel Air, where Kristy, 13, will go in the fall.
Jodie, who also left the public school system after eighth grade, recently visited some friends at a public high school in Baltimore County.
Classes were so large, her mother says, that "the teachers didn't even know she didn't belong."
Sharon Langowski, whose son also attends Cockeysville Middle School isn't thrilled about class sizes increasing, either.
"The more students you put in a classroom, the less organization you have," she says. "The teacher is better able to work with a smaller group, and maintain attention of the children.
"It concerns me, naturally, that we as a country are falling behind other countries," says Ms. Langowski. "I don't like that. Changes need to be made -- it's not like we're a backward country."
The retirement bonus the school system offered, between 20 percent to 30 percent of an employee's annual salary, is available to all employees who have worked in the school district for at least 10 years.
The administration hopes enough people take the retirement offer to save the county $12 million over the next five years. But some of the teachers who have decided to leave say the same budget problem that led the county to offer the incentive makes them glad to be going.
"Things are changing, and changing drastically," said Ray Hofmann, 53, department chairman for social studies at Parkville Middle School. The retirement incentive "was just a good chance to get out."
Teachers blame a bloated school administration, too little money, dwindling community support and decreasing parental involvement for an educational environment they say is changing for the worse.
With more than 90,000 students, Baltimore County is the fourth-largest school system in the state, behind Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Of those school systems, only Prince George's County had pupil-teacher ratios available. For its 110,000 students, the ratio is 28-to-1 in elementary schools, 25-to-1 in middle schools and 26-to-1 in high schools.
Baltimore County has "always been a school system that's well-supported by the community," says Doris Ensminger, a 34-year school employee and principal at Timber Grove Elementary School. "We are well-respected around the world, and we've enjoyed being pretty special."
Mrs. Ensminger says she planned her retirement before the incentive was offered. But "every time these [budget] issues come up, it just reinforces in my mind that I've done the right thing."
Margaret Shrewsbury, special education supervisor for the county schools' northeast area and a 26-year employee of the county schools, agrees. "I'm concerned about the general tenor of the times," she says. "I have concerns that -- with what appears to be a fairly predictable reduction in supervisor and central office staff -- our ability to have an impact on instructional programs will be reduced."
A report the county auditor made public last month says the school administration is bloated, and up to $12 million could be saved next year by cutting some of the administrative positions and perks.
But even more damaging to the schools than skimpy budgets is an increasing indifference among parents about their children's education, Mr. Hofmann says.