State Bill on Office Lease Puts School Board on the Spot

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Prince George's County Board of Education is expected today to discuss its options for responding to state legislation that attempts to override a lease for new headquarters space the board signed in June.

One board member has declared that she thinks the state's action, adopted before the legislature adjourned Monday night, is illegal. She said that she will encourage colleagues to ask Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to veto the bill and that she would support any other action the board takes against the bill, including a lawsuit.

"I plan to make clear to the members of the board that I am absolutely convinced that this action is not only unacceptable, but I do believe it's unconstitutional," said board member Rosalind Johnson (District 1).

The school board voted 6 to 4 last year to sign a 10-year, $36 million lease for Washington Plaza, twin 212,000-square-foot office buildings in Upper Marlboro once occupied by the U.S. Census Bureau. The decision has met with increasing criticism as the economy has declined and the board has closed schools and cut jobs.

Supportive board members, including Johnson, have argued that the system will save money over time by consolidating scattered offices. And they say the former school that houses the board's headquarters is so decrepit that it undermines efforts to modernize the system and improve education.

Led by state senators from Prince George's who oppose spending money in a recession on new offices, the legislature amended a bill that extends health benefits to county school board members to include language prohibiting the school system from spending any money on the lease.

The bill was not among more than 150 that O'Malley acted on Tuesday in his first bill-signing ceremony since the session ended at midnight Monday. O'Malley is scheduled to sign other bills in May, and a spokesman said the governor would review the measure at issue in coming weeks.

Some board members who supported the lease might nevertheless see the legislation as offering a way to step back from what has become a politically troublesome move.

Board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large) has said the group is in discussions with the complex's owner, Virginia-based MTM Builder/Developer.

But 28 school employees have already moved into the complex, and the school system has gutted a floor in one building. It is unclear whether MTM or the Michael Cos., which brokered the deal, would agree to terminate the lease without compensation. Representatives of the two companies did not return calls for comment.

Johnson, meanwhile, defended the lease and said the legislature's intrusion will make it difficult for the Board of Education to function.

"What business entity will have any comfort level to do business with Prince George's public schools when they fully know through this action that the legislature could, at any time, enact legislation forcing us to break a contract?" she asked.

There is a history of tension between the state legislature and the county's Board of Education. In 2002, the assembly voted to remove an elected school board that legislators thought had descended into chaos and replace it with an appointed body. The nine members now in office are the first board elected since that action.

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