Prince George’s passes budget

May 26, 2011

The Prince George’s County Council approved a $2.7 billion budget Thursday that slightly reduces spending on education but sustains several key schools programs and may avert teacher layoffs.

With the new budget, council members also allocated funds for an economic development fund and for road repairs, new police and fire recruits, and a one-time $750 bonus for county employees.

The public school system receives the single largest share of the county budget: Spending on the schools will total about $1.6 billion, about $13 million less than the current budget.

The council, which does not have line-item authority over school spending, has urged the school board to restore funds for a popular overnight nature camp for fifth-graders; to maintain busing for specialized academic programs; and to retain many aspects of an elementary reading program that has helped improve students’ skills.

School board members are to meet next month to iron out the details before the new county budget takes effect July 1.


Teacher Cathy Foutz talks to fifth-graders about insects at Camp Schmidt in Brandywine. The Prince George’s County Council has urged the school board to restore funding for the popular nature camp. (Juana Arias/For The Washington Post)

Beyond the school system, the new spending plan paves the way for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) to set up what he has made his signature program, an economic development loan and grant fund that could eventually total $50 million. Baker says the money is crucial to enable the county to attract new businesses and expand its tax base. The council allocated $7 million to the fund but has continued to spar with Baker’s staff over how the fund will be administered and how much oversight the council will have.

Baker said the budget was a welcome sign amid tough economic conditions. “I am pleased . . . that my office and the County Council have worked together to produce a budget that advances our priorities without furloughing or laying off hard-working employees,” Baker said in a statement.

The school board chairman was far less encouraged by the budget that passed. The money allotted to the 127,000-student system is less than school board members sought, although Baker and the council were able to add about $18 million, largely with funds from the state.

“We are in dire straits,” said Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs, who did not rule out layoffs for administrators and support staff. Teachers probably will be exempt from layoffs, Jacobs said. Early in the year, before the state added money to the county schools’ budget, schools officials were predicting the layoff of as many as 600 teachers.

“We are reducing the deficit, not solving the problem,” she said.

The new budget also restored cuts that Baker had proposed to nonprofit funding. The spending plan gives the nine council members $100,000 each to hand out to nonprofit groups based in their districts; the executive branch will allocate other funds.

How and where that money goes is not certain; Baker plans to establish standards that his office hopes to announce in a few weeks. The council, meanwhile, leaves it to each of the council members to set up his or her own system to distribute the money, said the council’s chairman, Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie).

The council allocated $2 million to the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental program that Baker had wanted to give $3 million. It also gave $2 million to the National Children’s Museum, which is relocating from Washington to National Harbor in southern Prince George’s.

“We would have liked to have been able to provide additional resources to many organizations,” Turner said.

“We think we have been able, in collaboration with the county executive, to provide for our core services,” she said.

Unlike neighboring Montgomery County, which in its $4.3 billion budget cut back health benefits and trimmed other county spending, Prince George’s adopted a budget that reflects its more cautious approach to spending over the past few years.

Turner said those decisions made it easier this year to deal with limited revenue. “We are working to make Prince George’s County the best we can be,” Turner said.

Staff writer Robert Samuels contributed to this report.

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