Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) said he would accelerate funding for several elementary schools if two were built on sites of his choosing, a plan denounced by elected school officials who said it omits public input.
Curry recommended yesterday that elementary schools be built in Upper Marlboro and Lake Arbor and that they and two others in the school system's five-year building plan be completed by August 2002, a year or two earlier than originally scheduled.
Those projects are among the 13 to 26 new schools the county wants to build to relieve crowding and phase out 26 years of court-ordered cross-county busing to balance schools racially. The school board has not identified sites for all the schools but planned to do so after soliciting suggestions from the community and discussing the matter in a public session.
School Superintendent Iris T. Metts endorsed Curry's recommendations yesterday to the County Council, which has the final say on the building plan. But several members of the county's Board of Education were upset that they had not been consulted and said they were not convinced that Upper Marlboro and Lake Arbor are the areas most in need of new schools.
"I have seen no data to justify these sites," said board member Robert J. Callahan (Bowie). "It was agreed to without our knowledge. These items were not approved by the board" in the building plan. "These are major changes to the plan."
Metts and Howard W. Stone Jr., Curry's chief administrative officer, said they met a week ago and agreed on the revisions to the school board's building plan.
Metts said that although other areas of the county also need new schools, she will recommend that the school board approve Curry's plan primarily because he is willing to build the schools and renovate other buildings sooner than expected.
"We have not had the opportunity to prioritize the needed improvements," Metts said. "We have needs all over the county. With a lack of a list, we felt that if we had documentation that [Upper Marlboro and Lake Arbor] are among the needy . . . we could recommend that the board accept them."
Curry is convinced that those are the right sites, Stone said.
"We looked at population projections, where the needs are according to growth and capacity," Stone said. "I am convinced, unequivocably" that these are the needy areas.
But some parent activists contend that Curry may want to quickly build a new school in Upper Marlboro so that a controversial housing development can move forward.
That development, called Beech Tree, would consist of 700 dwelling units. But county officials have stalled the project because three nearby schools already are over capacity. County officials acknowledge that if all three of those schools are relieved of crowding, the Beech Tree development could go forward.
"Development is driving [new school] location," said Donna Beck, a parent from Upper Marlboro who contends that county planners inadequately predict student enrollment growth. "This is obviously not a countywide perspective. We're not looking at the schools that are grossly overcrowded and bursting at the seams" with portable classrooms."
County Council members supported Curry's proposals and said they had no reason to suspect he was making decisions about school location with the Beech Tree development in mind.
Furthermore, said council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), the new school will help prevent elementary schools in Upper Marlboro from becoming severely crowded, regardless of whether Beech Tree goes forward.
"I would suggest that it is inconsistent [for people] to, on one hand, complain [the Beech Tree] project might result in overcrowding . . . and then complain about plans to build a school that would avoid overcrowding," Hendershot said.
Metts said she will explain her position to the school board at its Dec. 6 meeting. Board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland) said he will stress to her that the board and the public must be better informed about such deliberations.
"The superintendent makes recommendations to the board. That's her role," Thornton said. "And the board then gives its plan to the council and county executive with sufficient time to [discuss options]. That's not taken place in this case.
"And the public needs to be aware, too," Thornton added. "This is a very important debate for the community to have. If it's not handled right, the consensus that can emerge will evaporate, and we'll have the politicization of school locations. We have to work together to make sure that we have a consensus about school location."