FORUM: Will Underfunding Continue for County's Schools?

Prince George's County schools are chronically underfunded. Since 1981, only one school board budget has been fully funded. Recent school superintendents have steadfastly proposed budgets seeking movement toward parity with our better-funded neighbors. But budgets improving teacher pay, reducing class size and improving technology have all been underfinanced. Sadly, most county and state elected officials have been unwilling to properly fund our schools.

Traditionally, public school leaders have vigorously pursued resources for our children. Recently, the political response was to divert attention from funding issues by blaming public school management and governance for all the system's problems. Consequently, another scapegoat superintendent of schools has resigned because of political turmoil, and another new superintendent, Iris T. Metts, of Delaware, is on the scene with her out-of-state team.

But the fundamental issue remains the same: Our public schools are grossly underfinanced, and our teachers are underpaid and unappreciated and are leaving in droves.

It remains to be seen whether the new superintendent will be true to tradition in seeking full funding. She's currently on her "honeymoon" with county political leaders, and timing may be ripe for assertiveness. Inevitably, some will urge that she extend the "honeymoon" by keeping her budget "reasonable" (read low).

Public school advocates are encouraged by her efforts to free $8 million withheld by the legislature and held hostage by the Management Oversight Panel. We are pleased, also, by her estimate that our schools are underfunded by $200 million to nearly $1 billion and by a suggested strategy to improve revenue. Her comments that the MGT America audit (enthusiastically embraced by the county executive and by our legislators) is filled with errors and is unrealistic and that the much publicized $125 million savings are illusory mirror the views long expressed by most in the public school community.

But the proof in the pudding will be, first, her response to the County Council's effort to stem teacher turnover by improving pay, and second, her first proposed public school budget.

When the County Council sought to increase the budget amount for teacher pay, the county executive refused, saying he would later support a "supplemental appropriation" if a pay increase is targeted to address turnover. Metts's proposal is expected in late November or early December, and hopefully, it will reflect a commitment to fairly compensate teachers. Many public school advocates believe it will and earnestly hope County Executive Wayne K. Curry will keep his commitment.

Metts's first proposed budget will be the most revealing indicator. Last year's proposal [from her predecessor, Jerome Clark] was underfunded by $53 million. Metts has indicated full pay parity for teachers will cost $50 million. Increased enrollment and funding for already agreed commitments may cost an additional $30 million. Thus, a budget increasing public school spending by $90 million to $100 million would seek incremental, but important, improvement. A proposal raising spending by $150 million to $200 million would show substantial advocacy for equity with neighboring jurisdictions.

A meager budget proposal will reveal less than vigorous advocacy for resources for our children. This will please fiscal authorities but ignore our children's needs.

I'm betting Metts, like prior county public school leaders, will vigorously pursue the resources our children so desperately need. The question is, will state and county politicians remain enamored of her arrival and fully fund education or will they abruptly end the "honeymoon"?

Thomas R. Hendershot (D)

council member, District 3

former chairman of the school board

chairman of the council's Health,

Education and Human Services Committee

New Carrollton

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