The Prince George's County school board announced last week that instead of restoring fire-damaged Fairmont Heights Senior High School to its former condition, funding from the state and county will be sought to renovate the school.
"We hope that this decision will once and for all move the situation out of question-mark status," said board member Bonnie F. Johns, who represents the inner Beltway district that includes Fairmont Heights. The $8 million renovation of the school had been planned before the fire that gutted the library and gym two weeks ago.
In recent weeks, however, several black leaders in the county wondered aloud whether the renovation project would be canceled and the school eventually closed because of the damage done by the fire.
For example, during a County Council disscussion last week on the school system's five-year capital improvement program, council member Floyd Wilson said that he wondered if the county ever intended to renovate the school. He noted that the project, which was No. 1 on the board's capital improvement priority list last year, had fallen to No. 7 this year.
Wilson told his fellow members and assistant superintendent Elliott B. Robertson, who testified before the council, "Now I'll bet that by the time you (council members) leave office, this school will be up for closure. The superintendent will say that the school is in such bad shape that it wouldn't make sense to renovate it when schools in better physical condition are being closed."
"Lowering this project on the priority list is wrong," added Wilson.
Concern in the black community over the future of the school was further evidenced in a heated exchange between a black resident of the inner Beltway community around Fairmont Heights and school board member A. James Golato.
"The school board and superintendent haven't done a very good job of maintaining this school in the past," said Loretta Williams, who represented the Concerned Citizens for Quality Education at the meeting. "Because of this, everyone is wondering what's in the game plan for Fairmont Heights Senior High. Did you let it drop down your list of priorities because you plan to eventually close it?"
"I don't think we've been negligent or failed to take care of the school," Golato responded. "It's still on our list of priority projects and we're working to get funding for the renovation."
At this point, however, the resolution of the controversy surrounding Fairmont Heights may well depend as much on what action the state General Assembly takes on an important piece of legislation this year as it does on what the county school board does. Like most other capital improvement projects, the renovation of the school would require both state and local money.
Presently, Prince George's County would find it difficult to come up with the $2 million in local matching funds because it cannot float bonds. TRIM, the county's tax-limiting charter amendment, took away that power when it limited county taxing authority.
A clause in the Prince George's charter requires that public bonds be backed by the unlimited taxing power of the county. A bill scheduled to be introduced in this session of the Maryland legislature would supersede that clause and restore the county authority to float bonds.
At stake is $20 million in school matching funds already apportioned by the state, and funds for future capital improvement projects like the Fairmont Heights renovation.