The Prince George's County Board of Education objected last night to County Executive Wayne K. Curry's proposal to accelerate funding to build several schools, provided that two are built on sites of his choosing, saying the law requires public input.
Curry (D) recommended last month 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 schools the county wants to build to relieve crowding and phase out 26 years of court-ordered cross-county busing to racially balance schools.
Last night, the school board voted 8 to 1 to support Curry's plan only if county and school planners can show that those two locations are the areas in the county most in need of new elementary schools. That will be judged using four criteria, including recalculated enrollment projections and a review of the terms of the July 1998 court agreement among the county, school system and NAACP that ended busing.
Several board members reiterated that they are not convinced that Upper Marlboro is one of the areas most in need of a new school, saying schools in other regions are more crowded and in need of attention.
Equally troubling, those board members said, is that the school board was not included in discussions between Curry and Superintendent Iris T. Metts before Curry offered his plan. They noted that the court agreement that ended busing also requires that the school board, county executive and County Council have equal input in selecting sites for new schools.
Not following that agreement, known as a memorandum of understanding, is tantamount to breaking the law, some board members said.
"We as citizens of this county need to insist on the elected officials living up to the letter of the law," said board member Kenneth E. Johnson (Mitchellville). "I will not be used by other elected officials. This board should not be compromised by other folks. I will not stand for that."
Board member Robert J. Callahan (Bowie) said that if planners cannot produce sufficient evidence to justify the new school sites, he will lobby the school board to oppose Curry's plan.
Representatives for Curry said last month they are convinced that enrollment projections show that Upper Marlboro and Lake Arbor are as in need of new schools as any other area. Metts said she initially endorsed Curry's plan in a meeting with the County Council last month because it meant that four schools would be completed ahead of schedule.
Metts said she and Curry acted quickly because they knew time was short before today's deadline for the county to submit its construction needs to be considered for state funding.
But some county residents suggested that Curry may want to build a school in Upper Marlboro quickly so that a controversial housing development can move forward. That development, called Beech Tree, would consist of 700 units. But county officials have stalled the project because three nearby schools are over capacity. County officials acknowledge that if all three of those schools are relieved of crowding, the Beech Tree development could go forward.
"Let us take care of the existing problems of overcrowding first before we approach those of a hypothetical school population that has political backing due to a misguided view of what upscale growth is," said Mary Kilbourne, a former schoolteacher who lives in the county.
Edythe Flemings-Hall, president of the Prince George's NAACP chapter, said she agreed with the position the school board took last night.
"I'm concerned that decisions are made without us having the opportunity or ability to have input," she said.
But some school board members said they applauded what they see as Metts's desire to get new buildings up fast.
CAPTION: County school board member Kenneth Johnson is opposed to a plan to speed school construction.