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Lehman hears from Laurel residents on controversial budget proposal

Prince George's County Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Budget, Finance and Administration Thomas Himler speaks at a budget hearing hosted by County Councilwoman Mary Lehman April 2.
Prince George's County Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Budget, Finance and Administration Thomas Himler speaks at a budget hearing hosted by County Councilwoman Mary Lehman April 2.

County Councilwoman Mary Lehman heard concerns about, and some support for, a controversial Prince George's County budget proposal at a town hall meeting Thursday night.

The proposal, released last month by Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker III, would increase the property tax by 15 percent -- from 96 cents to $1.11 per $100 of assessable property -- in order to provide an additional $135.7 million in funds for the public school system as it undertakes an ambitious goal of landing within the top 10 districts in the state by 2020.

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Baker's budget also increases the county's hotel and telecommunications taxes, and includes layoffs and furlough days for county employees, while allotting funds for new classes of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers.

Thursday, more than 100 Prince George's residents turned out for a budget forum hosted by Lehman, a Democrat whose district includes Laurel, at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Beltsville.

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Lehman said she called the meeting to learn more about the rationale supporting Baker's plan. The county's deputy chief administrative officer for budget, finance and administration, Thomas Himler; Board of Education Chairman Segun Eubanks; and Board of Education member Curtis Valentine were on hand to make the county's case.

Eubanks called the school system's strategic plan, which envisions increasing academic success by expanding pre-K classes, increasing teacher pay and creating safer school environments, among other goals, "a roadmap for success."

Officials are aiming to raise the school system's graduation rate to 90 percent in five years.

Improving the school system, Eubanks, added, is "the last critical vestige of really moving Prince George's County into the future and realizing our destiny of making Prince George's County the best place to live in Maryland and in the United States of America."

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"We're on the outside looking in, wondering when it's going to happen for us," Valentine said of the success of neighboring school districts in Montgomery and Howard counties. "You get what you pay for, in many ways. We need to invest in our education system."

Many residents who came to testify said they supported improving the school system, but were skeptical that such rapid improvement would be possible.

"I applaud the idea of making schools way better. I kind of worry that we've heard this a lot already. We've gone through this a lot," said Barbara Sollner-Webb, who serves as president of the West Laurel Civic Association.

"I really think something drastic needs to be done, but I'm not sure if a 15 percent increase is really going to solve the issue," said Roy Smith, of Laurel.

Others expressed frustration with policies they said had yet to show tangible results. Many cited a state decision to allow casinos to open in Maryland, with the promise that a portion of the profits would go toward education funding. An MGM Casino is slated to open next summer at National Harbor.

"It's difficult not to think about the misspent and stolen money by corrupt bureaucrats," said Franklin Jackson, who lives on Briggs Chaney Road. "We don't need the tax increase. I believe the schools, and the county overall, need to demonstrate to the public that they are good stewards of taxpayer funds."

But some local parents and educators provided a minority voice in support of Baker's proposal.

Maria Gonzales Jackson, the PTA president for Scotchtown Hills Elementary School and a Laurel resident, said teachers at the school have attested to the benefits of a free breakfast program there. An expansion of the school system's free and reduced meals program is another initiative that would be funded by an increase in the county's education budget.

"I've heard from the teachers directly... kids aren't falling asleep in the classroom," Gonzales Jackson said. "One thing I think we should recognize [is] while it does hurt our pocket at this point, investing in our children in the long run will benefit us."

"We have been tragically underfunded in this school system for thirty-some years," said Ken Haines, president of the Prince George's County Educators' Association and a Beltsville resident. "We're not going to close the gap entirely, but we've got to close the gap a little. ... I'm willing to pay a little more in taxes."

Lehman said she wants to see more of a connection between the solutions the school system is proposing -- including an initiative to buy iPads for some elementary schoolers -- and increased academic achievement.

"I thought the plan was much too thin for this level of investment," she said. "I think Prince George's County public schools needs to do much better to communicate how these proposals associate with a higher ranking."

The County Council must vote to approve a budget for fiscal year 2016 before the end of June.

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