The Prince George's County School Board last week flirted briefly with the idea of voting against a legally binding school budget approved by the county council.
Angry with the council for cutting its proposed budget by more than $4 million, the board voted 5-4 to reject the council-approved $287.1 million budget.
Minutes later, however, the school board reversed itself -- after the board's attorney said the members might be removed from office if they did not approve the council's budget.
The board then voted 7-2 to approve the budget. Members Bonnie Johns and Doris Eugene continued to oppose it, however, arguing that it would damage school programs.
Under state law, the council determines the overall size of the school budget, but the board has the right to decide the fate of programs and services within 13 board budgetary categories.
Upset about the council's reductions in what they considered a "bare-bones" budget, the board members considered jumping ship.
The controversy began when member Al Golato questioned whether the board should accept specific council-recommended cuts. The council had wanted the board to reduce funds for personnel items such as the terminal leave, sick pay and salary lapses.
"I think we're setting a bad precedent by accepting the line-item recommendations of the county council," said Golato. "If we approve this bud get, what we'll be doing is encouraging the council and executive to get involved every year in determining the fate of individual programs."
"Are we saying that our first budget was incorrect, that the council is in a better position to determine what the county's educational system needs and what it doesn't need?" asked Golato.
Then the dam broke.
"We have reached the end of our ropes and our backs are to the walls," said board chairman JoAnn Bell. "If we don't get more help in the future, there is nothing left for us to do but sit here and bleed to death. I don't know of any school system in the metropolitan area that has been left stark naked the way that we have."
School superintendent Edward J. Feeney then spoke up to defend the board's efforts, over the past few months, to protect its original budget, which called for a 4.1 percent increase in spending.
"This board has stood tall," said Freeney. "While other boards in metropolitan Washington have had the luxury of cutting add-ons, we have had to add-ons to cut."
Board vice chairman Doris Eugene than attacked the county executive and county council, accusing them of making political hay out the tax-limiting charter amendment, TRIM, in cutting property taxes by 34 cents.
"At whose expense are we allowing them to come off as heros?" said Eugene, who twice voted against the council's budget. "They didn't give the county the 34-cents tax cut; the state legisllature and our local representatives and senators did. In the meantime, we sit here and bleed to death."
Board member Chester Whiting, who was defeated in last month's election primary, blammed the cuts on public apathy. "Sixty-seven percent of the people in this county voted for TRIM," said Whiting. "They love Mr. Hogan. The public doesn't care. Have you ever gone to a PTA meeting? The most affluent people in this county don't care about education either."
After the debate the board voted 5-4 to reject the council-approved budget, with members Bell, Whiting, Angelo Castelli and Susan Bieniasz in the minority.
Minutes later, however, the board reversed itself when attorney Paul Nussbaum said, "No matter how you slice it, you are legally bound to approve a budget of $287,095,339. If you don't the state could bring legal action against you."
Board member Norman Saunders told Nussbaum, "I think you can tell by the color of my face and neck that I'm pretty hot and irritated by all of this. The council didn't approve a bare-bones budget. Their budget is much worse, and I don't think the newspapers have played it up. I don't want to give anybody the impression that the board gave up."
Whitting then remarked, "A lot of minds have been spoken here tonight and it makes no sense to belabor the issue." The board then voted 7-2 to approve the budge.
In other action, the school board voted unanimously to close the Margaret Brent Elementary School and send its students to Carrollton Elementary School. Parents of pupils in the two schools, both of which are in New Carrollton, had requested that one of the schools be closed because neither enrollment was large enough to support fulltime teachers of music or physical education.