Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

MCPS projects $10M in savings

School board and superintendent are worried about the county executive’s fiscal 2008 savings plan

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In its first meeting of the year, school officials and the board discussed its fiscal 2008 budget savings plan, the use of technology in the classroom, and how County Executive Isiah Leggett’s cost-cutting plan could affect students.

During its next meeting, on Feb. 5, the board is expected to vote on Superintendent Jerry D. Weast’s proposed $2.11 billion fiscal 2009 operating budget, a 6.3 percent increase over the current budget.

Savings plan

The school system will save a total of $10.2 million in fiscal 2008 — which endsJune 30 — as a result of a hiring freeze and cost-cutting instituted in late November, school leaders said Tuesday.

The school system originally projected saving $15.9 million, but that number dropped because of $5.7 million in statewide deficits in special education, transportation services and other fixed charges, such as employee benefits and salaries.

The money will be used to pay for the fiscal 2009 operating budget.

‘‘This hasn’t been the first time,” Weast said Tuesday. ‘‘We’ve done this four other times. We’re no stranger to it, so ... we dusted off that freeze memo and sent it out one more time.”

The cost of fuel may increase again, Weast warned, which could possibly drive up costs.

On Nov. 21, Leggett (D) asked each county agency to identify 2 percent in savings in their fiscal 2008 operating budgets to help stem a projected $401 million budget shortfall. For the school system, whose $1.985 billion budget makes up almost half of the county’s budget, that meant finding $37 million to cut.

It would be impossible to identify that much in savings since almost 90 percent of the budget consists of salaries and benefits, school leaders say. Also, the system enrolled 700 more students than expected.

The school system went through similar cutbacks in fiscal 2004 and saved $9.2 million, which was used for the fiscal 2005 operating budget.

‘‘This has not been an easy month,” said Larry A. Bowers, the system’s chief operating officer. ‘‘We’re trying to communicate to people that we’re gonna get through this. We are trying to save some money to support the budget for next year.”

Leggett’s plan

Weast and the school board also took issue with two items in Leggett’s savings plan: one that would not allow county teenagers to take the Ride On bus for free, and another that delays funding from the Department of Health and Human Services for pre-school services until July.

A discussion on Leggett’s $23.6 million cuts was not scheduled on the agenda, but was ignited after board member Christopher S. Barclay (Dist. 4) of Takoma Park mentioned the cut to the Kids Ride Free program.

Board member Patricia B. O’Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda was ‘‘astonished” by Leggett’s proposal.

‘‘It’s not a savings to the county,” she said. ‘‘The dilemma is, whether we’re riding the bus or not, the Ride On is still running. I don’t think it’s wise to ask middle school students to help pay for the county shortfall.”

Cutting the program could have a significant impact on students in lower-income families, who may not be able to afford a bus ride every day, said school board President Nancy Navarro (Dist. 5) of Silver Spring.

‘‘This is an example of how interconnected our mission is,” she said. ‘‘Hopefully, having these kinds of conversations will inform us when it’s time to pick these programs.”

Instead of ‘‘bemoaning” the issue, board member Stephen N. Abrams said the system and his colleagues should figure out how to get early childhood programs within the school system, and not the county.

‘‘Get it out of HHS and to where it belongs,” said Abrams (District 2) of Rockville.

The County Council is scheduled to review the cuts during its Jan. 15 meeting.

High-tech tutorial

Much has been made about the students’ use of technology in classrooms, but it wasn’t until Tuesday that the school board was given its own tutorial on the use of Promethean SmartBoards — which were touted in the three-year, $10 million middle school reform.

The school system is pushing to ‘‘digitize” the curriculum and decrease the amount of paper being used, Weast said. The challenge, he added, is to unveil more technology, while making sure it remains affordable.

With the interactive board, students are given a clicker to register their answers. The old way of teaching, where educators stand in front of a chalkboard and lecture to students, is becoming outdated. Today’s more tech-savvy student needs more interaction in the classroom, school leaders contend.

‘‘We are in an era and age where we must bring technology into the classroom,” said Charles E. Smith, a science teacher at Montgomery Village Middle School, who gave the board its tutorial.