Curry places primary focus on school aid Goal: The Prince George's County executive says $500 million is needed over five years to make the county system healthy, but he has some obstacles in his way.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If there really is a rock and a hard place, Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry has found the little space in between. n nHis county, the one he was elected to serve in 1994, is trying to prove to a federal judge that he should end 25 years of involuntary busing of schoolchildren.

Prince George's argues that with a dramatic demographic shift in the past 30 years to a population that is 62 percent African-American integration has been achieved. Further, it says, because the local government is led at all levels by African-Americans, the school system no longer needs protection from the Jim Crow policies that once dominated the county.

But the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wants the judge to continue his stewardship until the county proves it can and will renovate or replace 44 substandard schools - many in the older communities closest to Washington that are nearly 100 percent black.

Curry, 46, the nation's first black elected county chief executive, says over five years $500 million -- half from the state -- is needed to make healthy the state's largest school system. The obstacles before Curry include the Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders (TRIM) - Prince George's County's strict tax cap - and shaky relationships with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

During an interview with Sun reporter Candus Thomson last week, Curry discussed his challenge:

The NAACP has hammered away in court about the county's tax cap and the apparent inability, despite all the good intentions in the world, to pay for school improvements. What would you tell them?

We've had virtually no growth in local income for the three years, the three budgets I've been here, and yet with no money from growth we have made schools our primary funding beneficiary. In last year's budget, they got 63 percent of the total budget - the biggest percentage in the modern history, the last 30 years, of Prince George's County. They got 49 percent of the locally generated money, the highest percentage in 25 years with the exception of a single pre-election year. I did it by managing sternly the rest of government to gin up money to make it the priority.

But the county's share might be as much as $250 million over five years. Where are you going to find that kind of money?

I don't know, but that's my job.

What do you make of the attacks by Baltimore politicians?

The Baltimore region never had any real reason or occasion to pay much attention to Prince George's County and Montgomery County through the years. Baltimore was the hub of state politics. This is simply an artifact of changing demographics and politics.

These two jurisdictions have unexpectedly become the two largest in the state, the two biggest job creators in the state. The city is getting smaller, the Washington suburbs are getting bigger. From a political standpoint, I understand it.

To paraphrase Marion Barry, they should get over it?

(Laughing) I'm not going to say that.

Baltimore is the established political base. Prince George's is one in transition, in many ways still deciding what it is going to be. Do you think that makes a difference?

This county is novel. There's never been a county in the history of this country that went from small and nearly all white to huge and majority black, where income and education went up and not down. That's a marvelous testament to the principles of the ** people who made things happen.

Basically, we're pioneering. There is no textbook, there is no other subdivision to look to, there is no elder statesman because this has never existed before as a political entity. Jeez, if we could get this far and be this good by accident ... What in the world could we do if we tried together? I'm inspired by those possibilities.

A lot of the criticism of Prince George's centers on TRIM. There are those in Annapolis who say if county residents really cared about their schools, they would have rescinded the tax cap last year. Instead, they made it tougher.

It particularly fascinates me that people try to rationalize their hostility toward this jurisdiction or its schools or its kids by saying, "You all have TRIM. You all aren't making your own contribution. Why are you asking us for aid?"

We're not asking you for aid as a charitable matter. You have a constitutional obligation to educate all the children. This isn't largess here. Read your own Constitution. Don't wait till I'm terminal to give me medicine.

The Prince George's House delegation unanimously opposed the Baltimore aid plan. Do you think it's payback time?

[The legislature] chose to make the issue, and I think quite correctly so, the difficulty of educating urban children paramount in last year's session. They established a premise that Free and Reduced Meal (FARM) lunch kids, that urban kids, are tougher to educate than suburban kids, therefore we're going to give a quarter of a billion dollars to Baltimore. I applauded that, and I meant it sincerely. It was about time.

So I simply said, "Now that you've established your premise, and are supporting it, make a comparable per capita contribution to FARM kids across the state. Baltimore isn't the only one that has them."

Baltimore has 70,000 FARM kids. We have 48,000, almost 50,000. What's the cutoff, 55? Whatever the cutoff, it wasn't us.

At the point when we advocated that, we were proclaimed greedy pigs. It wasn't even our premise, it was [their] premise, the people doing the name-calling. I was stunned.

Nevertheless, I don't mind a little name-calling, as you might expect given my background. If you call me a pig, I'll probably oink if the difference is you get to eat and I don't. Oink, oink, I'm LTC going to the trough, too.

As usual, there will be a lot of people in Annapolis next year, looking for money. Montgomery County wants $60 million for schools. Are you worried about whether there being enough to go around?

Part of their assertion [last session] was predicated on the assumption that there wasn't any money. All of the sudden, we're 10 days into that budget year and there's a $130 million surplus. Now we're in December, and all of the sudden it's 300 and some million. But we were greedy pigs.

Cole Field House, they want $106 million? That's about half on that one project of what I need over five years from the state to build schools. Don't tell me, "There's just no money, Wayne, no money."

I think we should hold out for the same thing, which in hindsight, now, appears to be affordable.

What do you tell parents about your strategy in Annapolis, about the future of Prince George's schools?

I'm going to build a whole bunch of schools. We're going to remedy the absence of materials and educational instruments. I'm going to work very hard to keep children first. You can't have a healthy and successful community without a successful school system.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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