By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008
A sharply divided Prince George's County Board of Education has voted to spend $36 million on a new headquarters despite a request from the superintendent to delay action and a shortfall in the county government's budget.
The 6 to 4 vote late Thursday came as the county government and the school system face a revenue squeeze. School board member Heather Iliff (District 2), who joined the majority, said the long-sought office move could turn the board into "a political punching bag" unless school officials are able to justify the move and show that the action would save public money over the long run.
Last month, the County Council authorized the school board to include funding in the school system's capital budget for a headquarters move. Soon after, a spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said the financial climate was not right for the move. The budgetary skies darkened further after the revelation this week that the county government faces a $48 million budget shortfall.
The debate burst into public Thursday night after months of quiet negotiations over a property at Washington Plaza, an office park not far from the Capital Beltway and Andrews Air Force Base. According to county land records, Washington Plaza is controlled by the Virginia-based MTM Building/Developer, which owns other land in central Prince George's.
The headquarters for the 130,000-student system, Maryland's second-largest, is in Upper Marlboro near the county government center. The timing of the move is unclear. The board's action was based on a 10-year, $36 million estimate for the lease, with an option to buy that would require separate approval of long-term financing.
The headquarters plan remained on Thursday's agenda despite an effort by Superintendent John E. Deasy to remove it at the beginning of the meeting. Neither he nor board members elaborated on the proposal to postpone the matter. The board split 5 to 5 on the motion to remove the item, which kept it up for debate.
Later in the night, Deasy continued to hold his position. When Haywood L. Perry III, the student member of the board, asked Deasy a series of questions about the building, Deasy referred each time to his first reply: "I recommend that the item be pulled."
In an interview afterward, Deasy said the county's budget shortfall could have a "significant" effect on the school system. "The economics of it were very clear," Deasy said. "I wanted to leave as many options open as possible."
Opponents said spending money on a staff building during a tight budget cycle would open up the board to criticism, especially in view of a recent study reporting numerous schools in poor condition. Supporters said the new building would save money by consolidating offices scattered across the county -- Deasy had estimated the action would save $40,000 a year in the long run -- and remove staff members from a crumbling headquarters known for problems with mold, mice and cockroaches.
"The citizens of Prince George's County deserve better than to come into a rat-infested, roach-infested services building," said board member Pat Fletcher (District 3), who supported the plan.
"This is just not a good time to do this move," board member Amber Waller (At Large) said in opposition to the plan. "We have programs that are in our schools. We want to sustain these programs."
John E. Erzen, a Johnson spokesman, said yesterday that Deasy has been told the county will cut $14 million from the school system budget. Of the headquarters, he said: "We've made our position clear on that. If they still have the money for it, they're going to have to make that decision."
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.