Pr. George's Officials Take Waiver Arguments to State Board of Education

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

BALTIMORE, April 27 -- Leaders of the Prince George's County government and school system made dueling claims Monday to scarce taxpayer dollars before the Maryland State Board of Education, pitting public safety against education in the county's fiscal priorities.

With county revenue hard hit by the national recession, County Executive Jack B. Johnson wants permission to spend $23.6 million less on schools in the coming fiscal year than required under a state law that sets minimum local school funding levels to ensure continuity in public education. County Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. opposes Johnson's request, saying it could disrupt a trend of rising academic achievement.

But Johnson (D) said that the 128,000-student school system has been well-funded in recent years and that if he is unable to reduce spending in the budget that takes effect July 1, he will be forced to cut basic services such as public safety.

"In a crisis like this, all of us must share the burden," Johnson said at the meeting. "This is absolutely critical for the totality of the well-being of our county."

Hite warned of an "adverse impact on the school system's ability to progress" if Johnson's request is approved. He listed such impacts: cutting programs he thinks will promote student achievement, raising the student-teacher ratio and eliminating jobs in addition to about 900 already cut in the schools budget.

Johnson's proposed spending cut requires a waiver from the state school board, which heard similar requests from Montgomery and Wicomico counties Monday. The board must decide whether to grant the waivers by May 15.

In contrast to Prince George's officials, Montgomery County leaders presented a united front to the state board as they requested a $79 million waiver from funding rules. Montgomery school officials in effect agreed to cede their claim on a portion of county funding because of offsetting increases in state and federal education aid.

Under the complex waiver deal reached by the county board of education, the county council and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), Montgomery will fully fund the school board's budget request and agree not to use additional federal funds for disabled students and schools in low-income neighborhoods to supplant local aid for those initiatives. Another condition the school board wanted was approved by state lawmakers: For 2011, the required level of funding for education will be based on the local level for 2009 or 2010, whichever is greater.

"It's fair," said Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. "It's a very tough situation the county is in. We're part of the county."

The Prince George's officials were also charitable to one another -- Johnson reiterated his commitment to funding education, and Hite praised Johnson's past support of the schools -- but the cooperation between the two was not what school board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs wanted it to be.

"I long for the day when Prince George's County officials have a conversation together," Jacobs (At Large) said.

Each side offered the other suggestions on possible ways to save money. Johnson suggested Hite dip into the school system's rainy-day fund to offset the cuts; Hite suggested the same thing of Johnson and the county government.

Both suggestions drew counter-arguments: Hite's fund balance is relatively small -- about $29 million. Johnson's reserves amount to almost $180 million, but the county executive can't reduce that much without endangering the county's bond rating, making it more expensive to finance long-term projects.

State school board members declined to comment on the case.

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