With a large slice of state education funding tied up in a debate over slot machines, the Prince George's County school board took a modest gamble itself last week in approving a $1.4 billion budget for the coming school year.
Board members included in their spending plan about $17 million in state education aid that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has linked to a controversial slots bill he wants to move through the Democratic-controlled state legislature.
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Many state Democratic lawmakers want to approve additional education aid regardless of the fate of the Ehrlich slots initiative -- about $150 million statewide for school operations and construction. But potential legislative gridlock in Annapolis could stall that money and force local education officials in Prince George's and elsewhere around the state to adjust.
"It's like flipping a coin," said Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby. "Fifty percent, you might get it. Fifty percent, you might not."
Without the $17 million, Hornsby said, the 136,000-student district might have to delay hiring special-education teachers, cut the textbook budget or trim planned funds for substitute teachers, school nurses and computer instructors.
Faced with a similar budget dilemma, Montgomery County's school board last week took a more cautious approach as it adopted a $1.7 billion spending plan for the next school year.
Montgomery officials calculated that they could be in line for $12.6 million in additional aid from the state for school operations. But board members didn't include those state funds in their recommended budget because of questions about whether the money would actually materialize.
"It's not an easy call," said Marshall Spatz, director of management, budget and planning for Montgomery schools. Spatz said the potential extra state money was "betwixt and between."
Also tied to the slots debate are yet-uncounted millions of dollars that Prince George's and Montgomery might reap for building new campuses or for school repair.
Hornsby said that 50 of the school buildings in Prince George's have leaky roofs. "We're putting buckets in the hallways," he said.
Ehrlich administration officials say the governor is backing large school funding increases no matter what happens to the slots initiative.
Prince George's public schools would get $775.8 million from the state under the Ehrlich budget for fiscal 2006. That's $88 million more than the county now receives, a 13 percent increase. It's also more than any other school system in the state would get under Ehrlich's $4 billion budget for elementary and secondary education.
"On top of that, is the governor willing to do more?" said James C. DiPaula Jr., secretary of the state Department of Budget & Management. "Absolutely. As long as we have a way to pay for it. There are no free rides."
State revenue from slots gambling, DiPaula said, would allow Ehrlich to boost state education funding. But bills to legalize slot machines have repeatedly foundered in the state Legislature since Ehrlich took office in 2003.