The Prince George's County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly may have won its first legislative battle.
Upset with a proposal introduced by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor (D-Allegany) to provide $14 million to help schools in Baltimore City and six rural counties, some in the 29-member Prince George's delegation quickly protested.
Fearing they would be left without any of the money, the lawmakers set out to find a way to be included in the "One Maryland Program," whose goal is to equalize funding for all state secondary schools.
The delegation's rumblings made it to Taylor, who Friday sided with the Prince George's lawmakers--even though he wrote the bill that excluded the county.
In a meeting late last week, Taylor told Prince George's delegation members that he would include their county in his proposal.
Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D-Cheverly) said he and other county legislators asked Taylor for $6 million.
"He assured us the money would be in there," said Baker, chairman of the Prince George's House delegation. "Whether we end up with the $6 million, I don't know. But I feel very good about us getting something."
Taylor's proposal is styled after a bill passed by the General Assembly last year that gave tax credits to economically disadvantaged areas, including those named in this year's proposal. That bill, also known as the One Maryland Program, also was written by Taylor.
Taylor, whose district is in line to receive $1 million this year, came up with the One Maryland idea for education and pitched it to other lawmakers as a way to raise his and other distressed counties to the same level as the more prosperous areas.
Among the lawmakers supporting Taylor's plan are House Majority Leader John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery), Majority Whip George W. Owings III (D-Calvert), whose district includes a small part of Prince George's County, and Del. Thomas E. Dewberry (D-Baltimore County), who serves as House speaker pro tem. The bill has 15 sponsors.
"I agree that Prince George's should be in there," Taylor said. "I would like to find a way to get [Prince George's] in there."
But it's a task that's easier said than done, Taylor said.
Under the One Maryland education proposal, Baltimore would receive $8 million and Allegany, Caroline, Dorchester, Garrett, Somerset and Worcester counties each would receive $1 million to help advance education in their areas.
It is unclear how the money would be used, but lawmakers said some funds could be used to buy textbooks and other materials that are in short supply in many schools.
Baltimore and the six counties were chosen for the one-time payments based on a formula that includes instructional staff and demographics such as median family income, unemployment rates, job growth, education levels, need for government assistance and number of children younger than 18 living in poverty, Taylor said.
But Prince George's delegation members say that formula is too vague and may have unfairly excluded Prince George's.
For example, it does not spell out the precise level of income, unemployment, job growth and public assistance required to receive funding under the bill.
"There needs to be better defined criteria," said Del. Anthony Brown (D-Largo), adding that he supported the One Maryland economic bill last year because of its clearly defined criteria. "If it's an economic bill, we need to call it that. If it's an education bill, let's call it that."
Whatever it is, Brown said, Prince George's deserves to be included.
"We may not have the worst economic situation," Brown said. "But we have the first or second most distressed educational systems in the state."
Indeed, although Prince George's, which is in the midst of trying to find ways to end years of court-ordered busing, has some poor areas, Taylor said that the growing affluence of the county would make it hard to qualify for programs typically reserved for economically disadvantaged communities.
The county's share of the Washington region's welfare caseload is about 14.9 percent, and nearly 41 percent of the county's 130,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals. Prince George's, along with Washington, has the highest percentage of single-headed households with children.
Yet, Prince George's County's average income level is well above that of Baltimore and the six counties in line for the One Maryland funding.
In Prince George's, 44.6 percent of households had incomes of $50,000 or higher in 1996, county and state figures show. Additionally, data show that 2.8 percent of Prince Georgians lived in poverty in 1996, about the same amount as Montgomery and Fairfax counties, two of the region's most affluent areas.
In Baltimore, the median income was $25,918 in 1995, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That same year, 68.7 percent of students in Baltimore received free or subsidized meals. "If you look at overall poverty, Baltimore is much poorer than Prince George's," said Bruce Katz, director and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank on urban and metropolitan policy in Washington. "Prince George's has more working poor, but they don't have the abject poverty that Baltimore has."
Still, said Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Bowie), chairman of the House delegation's education committee, there are some extremely poor areas in Prince George's, and they need extra help, he said.
Hubbard added that if the county is going to improve education and deal with the expense of returning to a system of neighborhood schools, he and others believe that it will need all the extra funding it can get.
Hubbard said that he does not have a specific figure for how much the county should get under the One Maryland program but that it should be in line with what's proposed for Baltimore.
The extra funding, Hubbard and other members of the county delegation said, would go a long way toward helping Superintendent Iris T. Metts, who has proposed a total operating budget of $1 billion for the next school year. The likelihood that Metts will be able to get sufficient county funding for her budget is slim. [Related story, see Page 6.]
Metts's budget request, which is 14.4 percent, or $126 million, more than the current year's budget, is the biggest ever for Prince George's schools.
In addition to the $1 billion, Metts also has proposed a five-year plan designed to step up the instruction of math, language, arts and writing. She has proposed creating all-day kindergarten classes, strengthening magnet programs and stressing basic skills such as reading.
"Certainly, we meet the criteria," Hubbard said, adding that if the bill were truly intended to help distressed areas, "we would have been included in it."
Hubbard adds that he is not against the six counties getting extra money considering how removed they are from the urban areas, which tend to reap more benefits as the economy grows. It's the $8 million slated to go to Baltimore that irks him.
After all, Hubbard said, Baltimore is not rural, and it certainly has some well-to-do areas.
Hubbard suggested that Baltimore was added to the proposal as an afterthought, or perhaps as a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back," kind of deal.
"Maybe there was some kind of deal worked out between Baltimore and somebody," Hubbard said. "I don't know. All I know is that we aren't in the bill, and we should be.
"I can't think of any reason for Prince George's to not be included other than the fact that someone up here [in Annapolis] views us as a suburb of Washington, D.C., and not part of Maryland," he added. "That's a big chunk going to Baltimore. There ought to be some equity. Give them four million and give us four [million]. Make it equal."
Taylor assured county delegation members that he would find a way.
"As a county, overall, Prince George's is too affluent to meet the criteria," Taylor said. "But there are some rather substantial pockets of horrendous distress in the county, and those are the areas that this bill could help address."
Prince George's lawmakers' push to include their county in the One Maryland proposal comes at a time when the school system is poised to make some significant changes to both its school buildings and academic program.
Plans are underway to renovate old schools and build 26 new ones. County lawmakers are looking to state legislators to give them $44 million this year to build seven new schools. The county already has received funding for the construction of 13 schools in the next decade with the first of those schools off Ardmore Road in Springdale to open in the fall.
County lawmakers say that although they agree with Metts's vision for schools, funding her budget request in its entirety will be difficult, if not impossible because of the county's revenue-raising limits.
This, said Del. Melony Griffith (D-Suitland), is all the more reason why the county should try to get as much money out of the state legislature as possible.
"I just believe that it is critical to get any extra funding we can from the state," Griffith said. "The growth of Prince George's and impact of desegregation on the county depends on funding like this."
Del. Barbara Frush (D-Calverton) said she's optimistic that Prince George's will walk away with some One Maryland money.
"I understand that they're trying to solve these problems around the state," said Frush, vice chairman of the Prince George's delegation. "But our pockets of poverty are bigger than some of those counties they're talking about giving money to."
Taylor said he was convinced of that.
"If this bill or anything like it is going to pass, obviously it's going to have to include some relief that Prince George's can qualify for," Taylor said. "I would think it would be hard to get this through without that."