The Prince George's County school system overspent its budget by $13.6 million for the fiscal year that ended in June, schools chief Iris T. Metts said last night -- nearly double her estimate of a month ago.
Metts also projected that the school system would have at least a $4.5 million shortfall over its $1.1 billon budget for this fiscal year if spending continues as it has. Metts announced the figures -- which are still under review by outside auditors -- at a school board committee meeting.
Millions of dollars spent on temporary teachers, combined with higher than expected transportation costs, ballooning salaries and an increase in the amount the system had to pay to send students with special needs to nonpublic schools, helped cause the deficit, Metts told school board members.
Metts said that the board will have to make up for last year's deficit in the current year's spending plan and that later this month she would present the board with a plan to find the savings.
So far, she has suggested eliminating the temporary teachers -- known as per diem teachers -- and reducing funding in the central office by 20 percent -- for a total savings of $9.4 million. "We'll work through this," Metts said after the meeting. "We'll solve this problem."
Prince George's County is certainly not the only school system dealing with financial difficulties: Both Montgomery and the District have had financial woes in recent months.
But some Prince George's board members last month questioned why Metts and her staff did not know the extent of the budget problem sooner and requested that she provide them with detailed quarterly reports.
"This didn't happen on this board's watch, but we'll make sure we put in the proper constraints to make sure this won't happen again," said school board chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro), who took office in June along with eight others.
Board member Dean Sirjue (Bowie) said, "I am concerned that there were insufficient controls to prevent this overexpenditure."
The first public sign of trouble came Oct. 9, when Metts told the board that the 135,000-student district had overspent its $1 billion budget by at least $7.5 million for the fiscal year that ended in June.
At that meeting, she said overstaffing largely caused the deficit, saying principals had hired more than 100 per diem teachers without proper approval. She ordered them to stop using per diem employees -- who are paid a higher daily rate than substitute teachers -- and projected $7.8 million in savings as a result.
Relations quickly grew strained between Metts and her principals, many of whom felt they were being set up as scapegoats. "It's always going to be someone else's fault, no matter what the situation is," said Doris Reed, executive director of the principals' union. "She's never going to take the blame."
Last night, Metts said that it was never her intent to blame the principals for the budget deficit. "There's nothing I have put on anyone," she said.
Metts and her staff said they knew of the financial difficulties a year ago and had responded by freezing the hiring of administrators.
School board members said they became aware of a possible deficit during the summer but did not expect it to be so large.
"I need to understand why it happened, but most importantly, I need to ensure that under our watch it doesn't recur," Sirjue said.
Tignor said that outdated technology made it impossible for Metts and her staff to accurately account for the budget. "Trying to do a $1.2 billion budget with pencil and paper is not easy," Tignor said.
State legislators are closely watching the relationship between the board and Metts, whose contract expires next summer. Metts has said she would like to seek another term as the school system's chief executive. The board members, too, have a limited time to improve the system. Under the bill that created the appointed board, the members will serve for four years, then elections will take place.
The school board members were appointed in June by County Executive Wayne K. Curry and Gov. Parris N. Glendening, both Democrats, to replace an elected panel that state legislators abolished -- in large measure because of its frequent feuds with Metts.
Hours after taking office, the new board rehired Metts and gave her a raise and a new job title.
Metts has enjoyed a cordial relationship with the appointed members, a stark contrast to a year ago when biweekly board meetings often turned into bitter battles.
In contrast, Metts and the new board members typically praise each other in public -- to the point where some parents have criticized the board as a rubber stamp for Metts's decisions.
Board member Robert O. Duncan (Laurel) predicted that the next few months will be difficult as the board tries to cut an already tight budget while beginning to draft a spending plan for the next fiscal year. "It's going to fray nerves," Duncan said.