Schools Start On Note Of Thrift

Systems Jockeying To Keep Budget Cuts From Affecting Classrooms

August 24, 2009|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

As Maryland's public schools reopen for a new year during a time of economic turmoil, some systems are taking tough measures to stem the fiscal bleeding, such as furloughing employees, denying teacher pay raises and increasing class sizes.

In Anne Arundel County, a generally well-regarded school system of 74,000 students, teachers and students returning for the first day of school today will be getting a sort of inadvertent lesson in economics.

The recession has translated into teachers being furloughed for three days, larger class sizes in some middle and high schools and the savings of $50,000 by forgoing new textbooks in Anne Arundel's 120 schools. And school systems across the region are tightening budgets, too, as Baltimore officials are hiring fewer teachers, Carroll County is delaying construction projects and Howard County sports coaches are cutting extras such as scrimmages.

"There's going to be pain here," said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for Anne Arundel schools. "We have tried, whenever possible, to keep the cuts from encroaching on the classroom. But that said, everything ultimately has an effect on the classroom."

Not every school system is equally hard hit. In Baltimore, for example, a plan to downsize central office staff and reallocate those resources into schools has allowed the system to save money on hiring new teachers. And though Baltimore schools received roughly half of the construction dollars from the state this year that it did three years ago, the 83,000-student school system also received the highest share of the state's federal stimulus dollars.

J. Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for Baltimore schools, said the $116.2 million in bonds from the federal stimulus will fund the renovation of old buildings and perhaps the construction of a new school. But with that capital fund reduction, officials have been forced to better prioritize funding for construction projects.

"We've taken a strong approach to recognizing the funds are going to be limited," said Scroggins. "State dollars have dwindled. The stimulus will allow us to do a lot more than we would have been able to do. It's sort of like a rescue from the federal government."

City schools have also implemented a funding system that gives principals more control over their school's .

The city, along with Baltimore and Howard counties, opens the school year next Monday, while Carroll County returns tomorrow.

And in Carroll, the technical high school in Westminster that was built in the early '70s is in dire need of a renovation, said Carroll Superintendent Charles I. Ecker. But the County Council denied his budget request this year for planning funds to jump-start the project, a likely victim of falling revenues, Ecker said.

"The money wasn't there, so they didn't fund it, " Ecker said. "It's one of our top priorities. The shops are outdated. They're smaller than current standards. We need to add programs like homeland security, and we don't have the space to do it."

Ecker also said that because of budget constraints, he eliminated 20 positions through attrition and only hired about 75 new teachers this year. Normally, he would hire between 150 to 250 new teachers.

"That's where it happens, in the classroom," Ecker said. "We need the teachers. I was pleased we didn't have to lay anybody off; nobody got any salary increase, including me. But we have fewer reading specialists or math specialists, less variety in course offerings. Instead of offering three foreign languages, a school will offer just two. If 12 or 15 students sign up for a certain class, well that's not enough. The average class size is 26. We'll be unable to offer that class."

Baltimore County schools are not experiencing major cuts this year, said Charles Herndon, a school system spokesman. He said the system has hired 700 teachers, an average number, and this year will be able to re-implement teacher raises.

"We saw the whole economic picture changing last year, and as a result the superintendent did not fund salary adjustments [for cost of living]," Herndon said. "He wanted to be very frugal so that we didn't have to lay off any employees. He made it a point not to have the economy impact any employees."

Arundel is furloughing all employees - administration staff for five days and teachers for three - though the teacher days will not disrupt classroom time. The day teachers will return to school changed, they will not be paid for a day off to attend a statewide teachers conference and will take a third furlough day during winter break.

Though budget times are tough, Arundel officials are pushing forward with a magnet arts program at Bates Middle School in Annapolis and expanding a science and technology program at two of its high schools.

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