The Prince George's County Council's public hearing on the school system's portion of the county budget last week was not the "show" it has been in years past, and the tone was more serious this year, according to council member Gerard T. McDonough.
About 1,000 persons filled to the balcony the auditorium of Hyattsville's Northwestern High School. Teachers as well at PTA representatives and parents came to applaud the 58 speakers who asked the council to restore $10 million that County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan has cut from Superintendent Edward J. Fenney's requested budget.
The county council is to hold a series of hearings on the executive's dubget before the June 1 deadline for its approval.
Although funds were trimmed from various other areas of the budget, much of the $10 million in question was earmarked for a contract settlement with the teachers. Compared with past hearings in years when their contracts were on the line, however, the teachers at last week's hearing displayed fewer signs, buttons and banners -- and caused no disruptions.
"My reaction was that the testimony was in the manner of earnest entreaty," said McDonough. "Those who are watchful of public education feel that if we go through with the proposed cuts in the education budget, it will create a cancerous slide in the education system," he said.
"We had a real safety problem last year at Eleanor Roosevelt," said Jane Schmuhl, clerk of the council, refering to a past budget hearing in which teachers and other organized county employes were more demonstrative. "They went up on to the balcony and we couldn't get them down. This crowd is beautiful."
Four of the nine school board members led off the testimony, sounding three themes that were echoed by all the speakers that followed: teachers deserve funds for a "reasonable" cost-of-living raise; funds for reducing the size of elementary school classes are a necessity, not a luxury; and Hogan's planned 19.5-cent reduction in property taxes will come at the expense of the education of the county's children.
Responding to a Hogan statement that the problems of the school system will have to be solved through the efforts of parents, students and teachers -- not the government -- school board chairwoman Jo Ann Bell commented:
"Mr. Hogan's statement shows a definite lack of understanding of the role of teachers," said Bell. "He says they're not part of the government. They are the most visible representatives of government in the community. Logic and fair play cry out that no one agrees with him. We want them to receive a fair and equitable wage adjustment."
Several members of the council said they will advocate a smaller tax cut to allow more money for the school budget, but none would specify a figure. County Council Administrator Sam Wyncoop pointed out that each cent of property tax per $100 of assessed value produces about $500,000 in revenue; it would take all 19.5 cents of the tax cut to yield the $10 million the school system wants.
"I believe rather strongly that your education system is the key to the future," said council member Ann Landry-Lombardi. "I also feel that the teachers have been cheated in terms of their long-term salary. His (Hogan's) tax cut will probably not be as big as he wanted," she added, "but I don't know whether all (of the extra revenue) will go into education."