Economy Threatens Education Funding

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009

It was a good ride while it lasted. But for the Prince George's County school system and the Maryland General Assembly, the days of easy money for public education are over.

When state lawmakers begin their annual legislative session Wednesday, they will face a $1.9 billion shortfall in a projected $14 billion budget, the result of a national recession that has sharply slowed home sales and property-value increases. To fill that financial gap, the state will furlough or lay off employees, exert greater pressure on local governments to pay bills that previously have been paid by the state and slash spending, even for popular budget categories such as education.

Although the Prince George's school board declared last month that holding the line on education funding was a top priority, lawmakers did little to sugarcoat the coming cuts.

"We can't sit here and say, 'You're not gonna get cut,' " Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George's) told the county Board of Education at a joint meeting last month to discuss the General Assembly session. "It is a very difficult time we are about to have, because we don't have any money. . . . Everything is going to be hit at some point."

Days after Peña-Melnyk spoke, the first financial blows struck in what is shaping up to be a bitter budget cycle.

On Dec. 17, interim Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. unveiled a $1.68 billion budget proposal that would slash about 900 positions from the school system's workforce, close six schools and increase class sizes in first through third grades.

The next day, Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget secretary recommended cutting almost $38 million this year from an initiative that sends additional money to Montgomery, Prince George's and other counties where the cost of providing public education is higher than in other jurisdictions. School officials said the move would compound existing budget problems. This year's loss would be about $9 million for Montgomery County and almost $12 million for Prince George's.

The moves were not surprising, as Hite and O'Malley (D) had been warning of serious budget cuts for months, but they mark an end to the good times that started in 2002 with the state's passage of the Bridge to Excellence Act. The act called for a $1.3 billion increase in state funding for education over several years, providing plenty of money for new schools, new programs and more, better-paid teachers and staff members -- the ingredients educators across the state, especially those in struggling systems, said they needed to show improvement.

Fueled in part by programs and improvements that money has funded, Prince George's students have made steady gains on state tests despite ongoing turmoil in the superintendent's office. That has included the departure of Superintendent John E. Deasy for another job after 2 1/2 years and the conviction of former schools chief Andre J. Hornsby on corruption charges.

School board members have said they fear the damage deep cuts could do to their ability to keep the good grades coming and vowed to fight for funding.

"If we don't fight for what we need, nobody else will," said Ron Watson (At Large), the school board's vice chairman. "Cuts will have to be made. I grow more concerned that the more we cut, the closer we will get to the classroom, and we will erode some of the gains we've made."

The blows to the education budget could be softened by the passage in a November referendum of a measure legalizing slot machine gambling in Maryland. The General Assembly is considering allocating some gambling revenue -- perhaps $600 million, although estimates differ -- toward schools, but even optimistic legislators said it would take a few years before the slots money is available, and pessimists said it would never come in the amount advertised.

"I think we're not being realistic if we sit here and think that we aren't going to get cut," said state Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's). "You will never see $600 million go into slots in this state. Never."

Board members pushed back against the skeptical lawmakers, appealing to their sense of duty to the county's children.

"Of every funding priority in the state, only education comes with a state constitutional mandate," school board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large) told the county delegation last month. "To go back on that constitutional commitment is to go back on a promise made to all our schoolchildren."

Del. Gerron S. Levi (D-Prince George's) said she would try to preserve education funding but compared the coming battle to taking the beaches on D-Day.

"I think we're going to have to storm Normandy," Levi said. "But as long as our arms are locked together, we might have a chance of being successful."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company