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DC Area School Systems Squeezed by Economy

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Area school systems are pondering various consequences of dealing with the worst economic recession in a generation.

Students will see bigger classes; teaching and staff jobs will be lost; pay will stagnate; and some facilities will close.

Thursday night, Superintendent Jack D. Dale's $2.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins in July received unanimous approval. Employee salaries were frozen and the average class size was increased by half a student — some of the moves that cut annual spending by $10 million.

Also Thursday night, a $197 million spending plan was unanimously approved by the Alexandria School Board. It is $2 million less than this year's budget and contains a a six-month delay in seniority raises, leaves out cost-of-living increases and reduces custodial service.

Maryland and Virginia school boards are preparing to send spending plans to local governments. School officials know that local tax revenue might continue to slump, state aid is likely to fall off and any federal relief from an economic stimulus plan is not yet available.

In many places, enrollment is expected to go up.

The 169,000-student Fairfax school system is the area's largest. It is expecting about 5,000 new students this fall. School officials are looking to fine-tune that estimate before budget decisions are made in the spring.

"There is the potential for a huge wave in front of us that could swamp the school system. What we will be asking from the Board of Supervisors is help to ensure that the ship we are on does not get swamped," said Fairfax school board member Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner.

Last week, the Loudoun School Board approved a $747 million budget, with spending basically flat, although officials expect 2,400 new students in the fall, a 4 percent increase.

In Prince William County, Superintendent Steven Walts proposed a $745 million budget Wednesday, 7 percent smaller than this school year's $800 million spending plan. Officials are predicting 1,400 new students, an increase of 2 percent.

The Montgomery County school system's $2.13 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year is likely to be approved by the school board Monday. It reflects the smallest year-to-year increase in a decade. Montgomery officials are expecting some 1,500 new students, a 1 percent increase.

The Loudoun budget would freeze salaries and mandate new fees on student activities, but would avoid bigger classes and reductions in staff. If county supervisors do not fully fund the school system's request, the school board has developed contingency plans. They include closing four small elementary schools, increasing class size and reducing some programs.

In Prince William, the superintendent's plan would freeze teacher salaries, cut about 450 positions and increase average class size. Students would be required to pay fees to play sports and pay more to use school parking lots and take driver's education.

As in Loudoun, the school system would stop paying fees for Advanced Placement and similar exams. The Prince William school board will vote on March 18.

In Washington, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is expected to deliver the city budget to the D.C. Council on March 20. It's unknown how schools will be affected, but the city is wrestling with a revenue decline of at least $300 million in the next fiscal year.

For the 128,000-student Prince George's County school system, interim Superintendent William Hite Jr. has proposed a $1.7 billion budget that would eliminate at least 900 positions, close up to 12 schools and increase class size from first through third grades. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Feb. 18 and on school closures next month.

In Montgomery, Superintendent Jerry Weast is recommending a year-to-year increase of about $65 million, or 3 percent. His original budget proposed an increase of $40 million, but he revised it after officials found a funding error that deprived the county of $24 million in state aid.

To reduce costs, the Montgomery school system has cut programs and persuaded employee labor groups to give up a contracted 5 percent salary increase.

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