Two decades of change and growth in Prince George's County are partly responsible for giving negative images to the county's schools, police and public services, but they are images that are not entirely deserved, according to a report released yesterday.
The good news and the bad news for the Washington area's most populous jurisdiction, with 676,000 residents, were delivered by a business and community task force formed in 1983 to draft a county "strategic plan."
"We were struck by the perception of the county as a whole," said A. James O'Mara, president of a large engineering firm and chairman of the group. Even those on the committee "probably had some negative images. We were surprised to find out the facts were far better than the perceptions."
Among the task force findings were that a higher percentage of county parents send their children to public schools than in other counties, the number of police per capita exceeds that of neighboring jurisdictions, and taxes in Prince George's are close to or lower than taxes in surrounding areas.
Yet, the schools and police still suffer from a poor image, the rate of serious crimes is higher than in Fairfax and Montgomery counties, there has been an erosion in some public services and residents believe that they are overtaxed.
The group proposed aggressive public relations efforts to spruce up the tarnished images of the schools and police in particular, and it blamed the media in part for not presenting "a balanced picture of the police department."
But not all the county's problems were image related, the task force concluded in its 30-page report. The group focused on four areas of concern -- education, public safety, employment and financial stability of public services -- and found room for improvement along with strengths.
In education, it cited as strengths some highly regarded special programs, low dropout rates and a public school superintendent "open to new ideas and willing to experiment." But it saw as weaknesses large classroom sizes, discipline problems, low teacher morale, low test scores and a history of bitterness and controversy related to busing.
The task force found that a perception of the county as an unsafe place to live was unsupported by facts. Calls for police service have declined since 1981, and the arrest rate was comparable to Montgomery's and better than in Fairfax.
The group found "some real basis" for the negative police image. Extensive interviews showed that "a small number of officers (both patrol and supervisory personnel) were negative to an extreme about their community."
"Tremendous economic, demographic and land use changes have occurred in the county in the past 20 years," the report said. "Such changes have affected all residents and departments of county government, though the tension created by change is probably most noticeable in the areas of police and schools."
The task force urged greater emphasis in police training on human relations, a step that Police Chief Michael V. Flaherty said has since been implemented.
In contrast, the task force found that the county's fire department had a positive image but was losing too many volunteers.
In the short term, the task force said, more money should be spent on schools and public safety.
County Executive Parris Glendening, who suggested such a study in 1983, agreed that the county has image problems but said he was not sure about the more aggressive public relations efforts the task force proposed. "My personal view is you do good things and move ahead, and the image catches up with you," he said.