By Rosalind S. Helderman and Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 3, 2009
For months, the Prince George's County Board of Education has taken heat for leasing a new headquarters building during an economic downturn that has led to school closures and job losses.
Now the state Senate has upped the ante: Give up the $36 million headquarters, the Senate said yesterday, or lose $36 million in school funding.
"The economic condition does not really afford them to move ahead," Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George's) said as he proposed the amendment to the state budget calling for reduced funding if the county forges ahead with the move.
The Board of Education decided this summer to move its offices from a decrepit former school to a pair of leased office buildings called Washington Plaza.
Advocates on the school board, which backed the plan in a contentious 6 to 4 vote, said the move would save money over the long run by consolidating scattered offices and give parents and staff a single place to go for business, as well as more attractive lodgings than in the aging Sasscer Administration Building in Upper Marlboro.
Two board members said yesterday that they were infuriated by the Senate's action.
Rosalind Johnson (District 1) called the decision "unconscionable" and said she believes the state is usurping the board's authority to make independent decisions.
"Home rule in Prince George's County, electing their own members of the board, it cuts it," she said of the Senate's action. "It says, 'You can elect somebody, but we'll neuter them.' "
Of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who had called the purchase "morally wrong" in a December letter to county leaders, Johnson said: "He is a person. He's not God."
Miller represents part of Prince George's.
Board of Education member Pat Fletcher (District 3) called the decision wrong.
"I wouldn't go down there and tell them how to do their job. I wouldn't," she said.
It is not clear whether the school board can legally back out of its lease, which includes an option to buy the office buildings. The board has signed a contract, and 28 staff members have moved in.
An internal school system memo written in October and obtained by The Washington Post predicted "severe adverse financial consequences to the school system" if the lease is broken.
The Senate's action might turn out to be a largely symbolic swat at school leaders. The House of Delegates did not include a similar item in its budget, adopted last week, and the proposal might not survive a conference between the chambers.
The Senate amendment also indicates that the funding is contingent on the board not proceeding with the move "and paying no damages due to terminating, canceling, or not proceeding with any contract." The board, which has gutted a floor in one building, would probably pay damages if it canceled the lease.
Board members have said they made the decision when the economy was more stable and have been reexamining it in recent months. Del. Melony G. Griffith (D), who heads the county's House delegation, said school board members made the best decision they could "based on information they had at the time."
"Then the economy spiraled, and because of the strain on the resources of the Board of Education, it's very clear this project is unaffordable," she said.
Staff writers John Wagner and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.