Prince George's pins hopes on new funds


FOREST HEIGHTS - No school system would receive as much from the Thornton Commission's education spending plan as Prince George's County, and residents of America's wealthiest majority-black county believe the state money is long overdue.

"The books in the library are too old, the building is crumbling, there's never enough money for everything we need to do," says Linda Brown, parent of a fifth-grader and president of the Forest Heights Elementary PTA. "It's our turn to get some help. We need it."

During the next five years, Prince George's would gain $306 million under the $1.1 billion education finance plan recently proposed by the state commission - a long-sought boost for a system that spends almost $3,000 less per child than the next-door suburban jurisdiction, Montgomery County.

The fate of that spending plan is perhaps the most significant issue facing the General Assembly during the 2002 session, affecting a tight state budget, school budgets in all 24 jurisdictions and the future of Maryland's education improvement efforts.

"If there isn't money for this plan, Maryland cannot continue with its reform efforts," warns Alvin Thornton, the former Prince George's school board chairman who headed the commission. "How can you continue to hold schools accountable for high standards if you have made the decision not to give them the money and resources they need to reach them?"

Two years in the making, the Thornton Commission's recommendations sought to reduce inequities among Maryland's school systems and ensure that all have enough money to meet state student achievement standards.

Under the plan, the $2.9 billion being spent by the state on public schools this year would increase by almost 10 percent next year. The total $1.1 billion increase would be phased in over five years, and it also would require greater local spending.

Though Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposes adding $161 million to state spending on kindergarten through 12th grade next year, none of that money is earmarked for the Thornton Commission's recommendations.

A legislative 'thumbprint'

Still, legislative leaders and education activists vow to fight for more money before the end of the 90-day session - enough to leave "at least a thumbprint" on the Thornton plan, says Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Even if no additional funds are forthcoming, the new statewide school financing formula proposed by the commission will be the subject of serious legislative debate in anticipation of education spending next year.

Pressure to approve either new money or a new financing plan is intensified because the Thornton Commission found Maryland isn't meeting its constitutional obligations for public education - providing ammunition for potential lawsuits threatened by poorer jurisdictions.

The commission's recommendations play out differently in different corners of the state. Though decades of academic research have found that money alone doesn't guarantee improved student achievement, some expensive, well-planned changes - smaller class sizes, higher salaries to retain qualified teachers, expanded classes for 4- and 5-year-olds - have frequently produced results.

Schools in Baltimore - which have received large boosts in state aid during the past five years - would continue to be among the biggest winners, as the commission sought to give extra resources to children who live in poverty and have extra needs. Systems in Maryland's rural areas also would see large increases in their per-pupil support from the state.

By contrast, wealthier areas would receive far less extra aid - prompting particularly loud objections in Montgomery County, where residents believe they're being shortchanged in funding efforts to educate a relatively large number of immigrant children who don't speak English.

'It would be phenomenal'

Here in Prince George's, eyes widen in astonishment among teachers, principals and parents when they speculate what could happen if their school system were to spend as much money as nearby Montgomery.

"It would be phenomenal," says Howard Wright, principal of Forest Heights. Though his elementary is among the highest-scoring in the county, he can quickly rattle off additional needs. "We wouldn't have teachers and others leaving for higher salaries," Wright says. "We could afford to do everything we need to do for our children."

Superintendent Iris T. Metts says about 4,000 county children are eligible for Head Start pre-school programs, but there's enough money for only 800 to be enrolled. With almost 134,000 pupils, Prince George's is the second-largest district in Maryland and 19th-largest in the nation.

This school year, budgets got so tight in Prince George's that the system began enforcing a long-ignored policy requiring elementary pupils who live within 1 mile to 1 1/2 miles to walk to school. At Forest Heights - along the southeast border with Washington, D.C. - that meant dozens of children crossing busy, six-lane Route 210.

"It's so dangerous, we've been out there ourselves directing traffic," says Forest Heights Mayor Sue E. McGinnis, whose granddaughter attends the school. After complaints, a bus was added for kindergartners and first-graders, but older children still must cross.

William Brose, a sixth-grade science teacher at Bowie's Pointer Ridge Elementary, talks about a need for "more teachers, better salaries, more classrooms." Says the 18-year veteran: "As long as it's focused, money does have an impact, no question about it."

The widespread demand in Prince George's for more money is reflected in depth of concern for the county's public schools that's greater than anywhere else in the state.

In the Maryland Poll conducted by Potomac Inc. for The Sun this month, almost twice as many Prince George's voters as the statewide average listed education as their top concern. And they gave their schools a grade almost as low as the grade given by Baltimore residents to the city schools - the lowest such grades in the state.

On Maryland's school tests, Prince George's schools rank next to last, higher than only those in Baltimore.

"Upper Marlboro is in no way a place that should be compared to Baltimore City, but the schools seem to be doing about the same," says 33-year-old Melanie Johnson, who has three children and is a district manager for a major retailer. "Unfortunately, when I compared the public high school to what was being offered in private school, there wasn't any real choice. That's not the way it should be in a suburban community like this."

Prince George's is far different from an urban center. Over the years, it has developed into a destination for black professionals and federal workers leaving Washington in search of middle- and upper-class suburban lifestyles. Median income is $55,371 - higher than in Baltimore County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Census 2000 Supplementary Survey.

"Prince George's County is a unique and wonderful place, unlike anywhere else in the country," said state Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's Democrat. "But our schools are crumbling, and we're seeing too many of our professional black families making the choice for private school. It's unfortunate."

Private school option

The private school choice is facing 48-year-old Edward Scott. The architect and native Washingtonian moved to Mitchellville with his wife seeking a better quality of life and education for their 2-year-old son.

"With our experiences and what we hear in the neighborhood, we don't feel confident that the schools are at the level of the surrounding counties," Scott says. "Now, when our son gets older, we're considering either moving to a place like Montgomery County, or maybe look at private schools. That's not the choice we wanted to make when we moved here."

Yet for all of the needs of the Prince George's schools, some of the problems are the county's creation.

In 1978, voters limited the county's ability to raise taxes for schools by passing a property-tax limit that's still in effect. During the past five years, county per-pupil dollars for education have increased 8.2 percent, compared with a 26 percent average increase per pupil statewide by local governments to schools.

Even if Prince George's were to receive its entire $306 million in extra state aid under the Thornton plan, the school system's budget would fall about $80 million short of what the commission defined as being adequate for the county because of too few local tax dollars.

'Dug their own grave'

The Maryland Poll found that despite widespread concern about Prince George's schools, its voters are no more likely to back raising taxes for education than the rest of the state - though they're more supportive of legalizing slot machines for school funding.

"Why do I have to pay more taxes than they pay in Montgomery County or other places, and they get more, they get the better schools?" asks 38-year-old Michelle Pugh of Hyattsville, who has three children and is executive assistant for a national education group. "I might be willing to pay more, but it seems like they're just mismanaging the money they have."

That fear among many Prince George's parents and taxpayers of money being wasted has been fueled during the past 18 months by almost constant political bickering between the school board and the superintendent over management issues. "They've dug their own grave," says Doris Reed, executive director of the Prince George's administrators union. "They had so many opportunities to clean up their own act, and they've never done it."

With so much contention, Prince George's legislators are proposing more than a half-dozen strategies to restructure the elected school board - perhaps having a board completely appointed by the governor, or adding appointed members to those who are elected. The debate over how to change the board, and whether such a change should be approved by voters in November, could stretch over the current state legislative session.

"I guarantee we will not leave Annapolis this year without having made changes to that school board," vows Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's Democrat and outspoken critic of the board. "We can't let our 136,000 children continue to pay the price for this dysfunctional school board."

Yet amid the debates over money and accountability, what's happening inside the Prince George's classrooms offers hope. It's the largest system in Maryland to install full-day kindergarten countywide, and last spring its elementary pupils posted the county's largest gains ever on standardized exams.

"We are risk takers in Prince George's County," says Metts, the superintendent. "We have done our homework. ... Now we need the money to move forward with our reforms."

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