It is a season of fear and suspicion for the Prince George's school board. In Upper Marlboro, County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan has said he cannot give the board the money it wants. In Annapolis, state legislators are considering bills that board members believe will impinge on their powers.
In Baltimore, state education officials are working out a formula for dividing block grants, preparing a bylaw on a minimum curriculum and asking for more and more documentation and paperwork from county schools.
Prince George's school board members are getting worried.
"Maybe it's paranoia," said one of them, A. James Golato, who is vice president of the Maryland Association of School Boards.
Susan Bieniasz, a member of the county school board and chairman of its legislative committee, said interference is coming from "legislative action which could erode local control, . . . from changes in federal laws in relation to block grants, from curriculum directives. . . . We're feeling that there's an awful lot of things coming from so many directions it's really eroding" local power.
Nothing is new in the latest attempts by state legislators to tell local school boards what to do. Prince George's board members often agree with the objectives of bills, but traditionally have opposed them as being none of the General Assembly's business.
This year's proposals include a measure that would force the board to establish an office of law and another creating a system for board member recall. They will be opposed, on principle, by the Prince George's school board.
"There is a strong feeling that the legislators are not dealing from the focus of education," Bieniasz explained. "They're dealing from the focus of politics."
State Board Chairman (and county school board alumnus) Joanne T. Goldsmith agreed there is legislative interference. "It's election time and crazy things happen," she said. "We're all under attack."
But both administrators and board members in Prince George's say interference from the state board of education and state-level school administrators is at an all-time high. Their anger was sparked in November when the state board proposed a bylaw that would mandate a minimum social studies curriculum.
Although this minimum curriculum was supported by local board members--in fact, county school officials were instrumental in developing this curriculum and it is already in force in local schools--they were incensed that the state board wanted to write it into law. The state board is expected to pass this bylaw in March.
The state board has the right to pass bylaws in the area of education. These bylaws have the force of law, are subject to hearings and must be published in the Maryland Register.
"Why not a resolution?" Golato demanded. "This (a law) can establish a precedent. Local control of education could become eroded."
Prince George's Superintendent Edward J. Feeney called the bylaw "much more stringent and not as flexible for the local unit" as the more commonly used resolution.
The school board voted unanimously in November to send a letter of protest to the state board.
Golato maintained that the state board is responsible for establishing educational guidelines but should not get into the habit of making them law. But Goldsmith argued that using bylaws to establish minimum educational requirements in Maryland is nothing new.
"We have a bylaw on multicultural education, we have a bylaw on family and human development, we had one on driver education," she said.
Conflict with the state board is nothing new either, but local school officials believe their occasional adversary in Baltimore is becoming more powerful.
"There is a great deal of power being given to the state level by the federal level," Bieniasz said. She and other school officials run through a long list of recent events they say have reduced and restricted local control of education.
Project Basic, a state-implemented program setting minimum proficiency in basic subjects, requires large amounts of documentation for which local jurisdictions must pay. Feeney has calculated that the total cost to Prince George's for state-ordered testing is $179,375 a year. And as Project Basic expands (mathematics will be added in September and other subjects later) the cost will increase, he said.
"Things seem to be a lot more critical today," complained Robert T. Coombs, director of instructional services for county schools. "There are many, many mandates being placed on schools for keeping records; . . . people are starting to feel oppressed by the weight of this due compliance stuff."
All this lends greater importance to a three-year-old suit against the state Department of Education. Testimony is expected to begin this spring in an appeal, in which four of Maryland's poorer school districts--Somerset, St. Mary's and Caroline counties, and Baltimore City--are asking for guarantees that the same amount of money spent to educate children in richer counties will be spent on their students.
The Prince George's school board, fearing this would mean increased state control of local education and restrictions on spending, has, ironically, declared itself on the side of the state. Several board members have expressed fears that this is a case the state would like to lose.
Board members fear that state control of education may be further increased by the distribution of federal block grants. A 22-member state commission currently is attempting to arrive at a formula for dividing block grant money among local jurisdictions, although nobody knows yet how much money the education grant will contain. The only certainty is that the money will be less than half of what the state has received from the federal government in previous years, according to a state education official.
The Prince George's school board already has complained that it is under-represented on the state commission. Although the county is the second largest of Maryland's 24 school districts, only one member of the commission comes from the county. Six are from Baltimore City, the largest district.
"I'm not comfortable that you're going to end up with a viable tool to divide the money," Bieniasz said. She said she believed it will be impossible to keep politics out of the process of dividing a shrinking pie, making it especially important for Prince George's to have its say.
The new block grant system contains other problems for local jurisdictions. State education departments across the country will keep 20 percent of the block grant money for their own administrative and discretionary use.
George E. McKenney, director of federal programs for the Prince George's schools, told the school board he is concerned this will lead to a larger state bureaucracy, with larger powers of interference in local jurisdictions. Bieniasz agreed. The worrying question, she said, is "how much of an administrative monolith there will be in Baltimore to govern my use of federal funds."
But Goldsmith said state bureaucracy will not grow. The real problem, she said, is whether or not the state gets the money at all.
"Very likely the block grant will be cut in March," she said, and before long, "my guess is we're not going to have block grants. All the money will dry up completely. Then it will be all we can do to hang onto existing programs."