Class sizes would rise under Hairston's budget proposal

Class sizes would rise in Baltimore County next school year under Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's budget proposal, which includes a freeze on filling about 200 vacant teaching positions, even as the system experiences a surge in enrollment.

Hairston, who presented his plan to the school board Wednesday night, is also proposing a 5 percent decrease in central office and individual school budgets that would require principals to cut back on purchasing supplies and equipment.

Hairston's $1.2 billion operating budget for the fiscal year beginning in July would increase over last year by $6.5 million, or 0.5 percent. The budget assumes that state funding will increase slightly and county funding will hold steady even though the state is considering cutting education funding by 5 percent or transferring part of the teacher pension expenses to the counties. About 42 percent of the county school budget comes from the state.

"We will be challenged to be more efficient," he told the board, adding that the budget contains no new programs or initiatives.

The increase in the budget is necessary, school officials say, because enrollment in the district, which is now at 104,333 students, has been growing quickly. About 500 new students enrolled this year, and the system is projecting an increase of about 900 next year, the largest surge in eight years.

The elimination of 196 positions in the teaching work force of 8,956 would be accomplished through attrition. No furloughs or layoffs are planned.

With more students and fewer teachers, the class sizes at many schools would increase, although the poorest-performing schools where reform efforts are under way would be spared, as would pre-kindergarten through second grade. High schools that have been meeting expectations under No Child Left Behind would see the most significant increases in class sizes, said Barbara Burnopp, the school district's chief financial officer.

After Hairston's presentation, Cheryl Bost, president of the county teachers union, said she was "concerned that too much is touching students and schools."

She said the union would examine how serious the impact of teacher reductions would be on class size, as well as whether additional resource people could be put back in classrooms to offset the reductions.

Several parents who attended the meeting also were concerned about larger class sizes.

"Larger class sizes are never good," said Laurie Taylor-Mitchell.

Cathi Forbes, head of Towson Parents United, agreed, saying that she still had a lot of questions about the proposal. "Is it increasing class size by one or two students or by five?" she said.

Cuts to the individual schools' budgets were made in order to support increased salary and benefit costs of $19.2 million as well as the loss of a similar amount of federal stimulus money. Items like benefits, transportation and maintenance of buildings were protected.

Under the proposal, teachers would only receive "step" increases that are specified under their contract. Those increases are based on the number of years a teacher has been in the system. Since the 2008-2009 school year, teachers have received one cost-of-living increase, of 1 percent, in 2009-2010 and otherwise have received only step increases.

The system would save another $2.8 million by reducing salaries for extra-duty assignments or after-school assignments that aren't negotiated under the teachers contract. Sports coaches would not be included in the cuts, nor would most high school teachers who assume after-school responsibilities. Most of the effect, Burnopp said, would be felt at the elementary schools. In addition, the system would reduce some summer employment for teachers.

The 5 percent reductions in school budgets would be for all expenditures not tied to salaries. Principals might decide not to make a computer purchase, buy textbooks or give teachers additional professional development, Burnopp said. In addition, principals could decide to cut expenses in the current fiscal year to hold back some funds for the coming year, she said.

The central school offices would also be reduced, saving $2.6 million.

Besides those reductions, the system would eliminate four days of the four-week summer school course, saving $412,000; and cut purchases of computers, library books, classroom furniture and calculators.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has signaled that he may be open to a 5 percent reduction in state education funding, and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said this week that given the severity of state budget problems, she does not believe that schools will be immune from some reductions. O'Malley has said he does not support transferring the pension responsibility; however, legislative leaders have been considering the idea.

The school system will hold a public hearing on the budget at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Ridge Ruxton School in Towson.

The school board is expected to vote on the budget Feb. 8. The budget then goes to the county executive March 1 and to the County Council in April.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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