Pr. George's schools may owe millions in funding dispute

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The head of Prince George's County schools said Monday that the district could be liable for as much as $26.8 million in penalties after Maryland's attorney general found that the county had failed to meet the state's minimum level of funding for education.

When asked about the attorney general's opinion last week, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. had indicated that the county might not owe anything because of a decline in state aid.

But when he looked into the issue, Hite found that aid had increased in some categories, leaving the county vulnerable, he said. The size of the penalty is connected to the size of the increase in state aid.

"It is a lot of money," Hite said. "That would have a devastating impact on our school system."

He declined to speculate on which programs might be cut if the county has to pay a penalty. The school system has slashed hundreds of jobs and closed eight schools this year.

The opinion of Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) has also caused concern in Montgomery County, which was also named in the opinion as having "artificially" met Maryland's law setting a minimum level of education funding. Montgomery school officials said they could owe $16 million to $64 million.

The two counties are waiting for the State Board of Education to decide whether to issue penalties.

The Prince George's county government has filed an appeal of an earlier funding decision by the state board, and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and County Council President Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) threatened last week to sue the state.

Both counties have also issued calls for state leaders to change the funding law.

"I think the answer to this is likely to be during the legislative session," Hite said. "I plan to work with the legislators and the county officials to, as much as we can, to lessen the impact of this."

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