If School Superintendent Iris T. Metts was dismayed by County Executive Wayne K. Curry's tepid public response to her recent request for a $126 million increase in school funding, she will find the Prince George's County Council equally disappointing.
While saying they applaud Metts's overall vision for the schools, most of the nine council members agree with Curry (D) that the county cannot muster that kind of financial support, particularly with a voter-imposed property tax cap that limits how much revenue they can raise.
"It's never going to happen," said council member Audrey E. Scott (R-Bowie).
Council member Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort Washington) said that Metts's request, which would be used to boost teachers' salaries, reduce class sizes and upgrade technology, is necessary to improve a 130,000-student system struggling with crowding and low test scores.
But, Gourdine said, "we cannot afford it. If we were to fund it, it would hurt other parts of government. We just don't have the money."
In interviews, seven council members--Scott, Gourdine, Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville), M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Croom), Vice Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood), Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville) and Chairman Dorothy F. Bailey (D-Temple Hills)--said the county does not have the funds that Metts wants. Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) was the only member who said the money exists.
One council member, Marvin F. Wilson (D-Glenarden), did not return calls seeking comment.
Metts's request for a $126 million increase would push the county's total operating budget for the schools to $1 billion. Although she has expressed optimism that county and state leaders will fund the proposal, history suggests that it will be difficult.
Jerome Clark, Metts's predecessor, asked for an $80 million budget increase last year. Curry gave the system just $30 million extra, saying the county could not afford more. When the school board then asked for a $17 million increase to raise teachers' salaries, Curry declined, saying he could not be sure the school system would spend it wisely.
Metts has said that Curry has promised her a "significant increase," though she has not been specific. Publicly, Curry has said that he appreciated the scope of Metts's plan but that he "will not spend money that we don't have. We will not become financial charlatans, creating promises for gains we can't fulfill." Metts is hoping to receive some state funding, which would provide $21.5 million under a proposal unveiled last week by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D).
For some council members, Metts's funding request underscores the limitations that the property tax cap, known as TRIM, imposes on county officials.
"TRIM is holding the county back," Shapiro said. "There's a bunch of us who would like to repeal it and see that any increase, perhaps, would be targeted for education or maybe crime prevention. With TRIM, you can't even have minimal increases to help us raise money."
But others do not appear eager to test voters' interest in repealing the cap, an effort that was defeated in a 1996 referendum. "I'm not going to spend a lot of time on something that the voters have spoken about," Estepp said.
At least one council member questioned whether Metts needs as much as she is asking for. "I don't know if she can justify it," Maloney said. "This is part of the annual spring dance. Every bureaucrat asks for more than they can get, and they know that."
Hendershot, a former member of the county school board, appears to be the only council member who believes that the county has enough money to meet Metts's needs.
"With the booming economy, we're sitting on a lot of money. There's no question we can do it," he said. "The questions is, do we have the will?"
But county budget officials say that nearly 80 percent of the county's $114 million surplus is already earmarked. In addition, they said, there is no guarantee that there will be a surplus in 2001. "Even if you have a one-time surplus, we couldn't do it next year," Shapiro said. "It would be incredibly financially irresponsible because it would set us up for a deficit."
Proposed School Budget
Expenditures for FY 2001; total $1,002,907,009.
Percent of total Millions of dollars
benefits 39.7% $397.9
Special needs population 18.0 180.5
Support services 8.7 86.8
Student services 8.6 86.6
Instruction improvement 8.2 82.2
Class size reduction 8.1 80.9
Technology 3.8 37.7
Obligations, fixed charges 2.7 26.8
Staff development 2.3 23.3
SOURCE: Prince George's County Public Schools