The Prince George's County school system overshot its initial administrative budget this year by well over 50 percent. The schools chief has laid the foundation for a 5,000-seat high school gymnasium that the county government has refused to fund. State and county spending blueprints will force the school system to whack $37 million from its proposed 2006 budget. And an audit of the fiscal 2004 books is long overdue.
Sifting through such developments, county officials and others who monitor Maryland's second-largest school system wonder: Are they warning signs or budgetary blips?
The leader of the 136,000-student system calmly replies that the public school finances are sound and that he will forge ahead with his agenda.
"That's what people in my position are supposed to do: advocate for children," schools chief Andre J. Hornsby said.
Hornsby and his backers cite evidence to bolster his view. A budget deficit inherited from his predecessor in 2003 is gone. The state and county are raising spending for the proposed 2006 school operating budget more than $100 million to a record $1.4 billion. The Maryland General Assembly just gave Prince George's a $30 million windfall to help renovate and expand an aging 196-campus network.
Last week, however, a County Council education committee grilled Hornsby as he requested changes to the adopted 2005 budget. Council members scrutinized school administration expenses, originally budgeted at $20.4 million but now projected to exceed $33.4 million; and instructional salaries, originally budgeted at $503.7 million and now projected at $478 million.
Hornsby and aides told the committee that faulty first estimates were due in part to upheaval caused by budget-balancing steps taken in 2004. "As the budget was being built," Hornsby said, "the money got placed in the wrong categories. . . . It takes you over a year to clean that stuff up."
Council member Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills), the committee chairman, was skeptical. "At what point [is] the deficit no longer the point of reference for what's going on now?" he asked.
Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) asked: "Does that mean there's a bunch of teachers we planned to hire but didn't hire?"
Hornsby said the system's teaching staff has expanded, after a dip to plug the deficit. In 2003, the school system had 8,542 teachers; in 2004, 8,230; in 2005, 8,715. Projections call for 8,904 in the next school year.
Hornsby played down this year's bulge in administrative spending, but he acknowledged that the system will be forced to scale back its 2006 spending proposal.
In his 2006 education budget, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) proposed $20 million less than the school system had sought. Also, the state legislature failed to fund a revenue source, known as the "geographic cost of education index," that Prince George's officials assumed would provide the schools about $17 million. As a result, Hornsby said he expected "difficult decisions" to trim his request by $37 million.
Council member Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) asked when the school system would finish its required audit for fiscal 2004, which was due last fall. The school board fired its first auditor, KPMG, in February amid a dispute over delays, and BDO Seidman was hired. The school system could lose tens of millions of dollars in state funds if the audit is not finished.
Hornsby told the committee that he hopes the audit will be done by May 30. "At this time, we're continuing to work toward that goal," he said.
Meanwhile, construction continues on an $85.5 million high school, with a 5,000-seat gymnasium, on Brooke Lane in Upper Marlboro. County officials have balked at the price of the gym, which could add at least $6.5 million to the school's cost, arguing that a 1,700-seat gym would suffice when money is in demand for school repairs countywide.
But Hornsby obtained school board approval in December to seek alternative financing for a regional facility he called necessary for graduations, major sporting events and other school activities. The school is to open in August 2006.
Johnson said recently that he would help Hornsby find another funding solution, according to county executive spokesman Jim Keary. "There's no money for it in the budget," Keary said. "But that doesn't eliminate other forms of financing."
Doris Reed, executive director of the county principals' union, said she could not guess how Hornsby might pay for the gym. "I'm at a loss," Reed said. "Does he have that much money in his checkbook?"
In the interview, Hornsby suggested that a sale and lease-back arrangement might be possible or that public and private money from various sources could be tapped. "I have options right now," he said. "I'm not worried."