It's hard to know what to say about Iris T. Metts's $1.3 billion budget request. It is so big, so bold, so audacious that it inspires admiration. She is, in effect, saying, You want your children to be educated? This is how much it would cost. If you don't want to pay it, don't come whining to me about low test scores.
After all, as she pointed out to reporters Saturday morning after a short board meeting, her budget request isn't much different from what neighboring Montgomery County spends on a comparable number of students. But that's in Montgomery County, where an ethos has built up over decades that school spending comes first and everything else takes a back seat. That's different from Prince George's, where residents hug their TRIM property tax amendment like a security blanket and where Metts's budget proposal -- which asks for a 23.2 percent increase, $208.5 million of which she is proposing come from county taxes -- is pretty much dead on arrival, even as far as the school board is concerned.
It is foolhardy, said school board Vice Chairman Howard W. Stone Jr. (Mitchellville). What is on the table today is unrealistic, said fellow board member Judy Mickens-Murray (Upper Marlboro).
Mind you, the school board asked for this budget proposal. The staff did what we asked, school board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) noted, which was to tell the school board what dollars were needed to truly fund everything the board wants to do: raise teacher salaries so that Prince George's can have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom; reduce class sizes; have a really up-to-date computer system so that schools know what is going on with every student and every dollar; and on and on. But that still leaves some issues percolating in the back of the mind.
For example, as board member Mickens-Murray asked: If Prince George's is ending all the big busing programs and returning to neighborhood schools, why does Metts ask for an additional $22 million for transportation? Here's another issue: Metts has said she needs almost $65 million for new technology. But there was money in last year's budget for new technology. Where did that go? It's not enough to say it went to cover other items, as Metts did. What other items? Why? All those questions and hundreds more will have to be asked and answered as the school board members work their way through intimidating budget documents.
Board members seem very cognizant of their need to be stewards of a public trust. That trust includes not only making sure that our future adults receive what they need to be productive and contributing members of a democratic society, but also that public resources are spent wisely and thoughtfully, so that ordinary taxpayers are able to see the need for every one of their dollars. This stewardship is what they were asked to provide when they were appointed to replace the old elected board, and over the next couple of months we will get a sense of how well they will do it. They've made a good start. They asked Metts for a budget that would really do what it is they want to do. She seems to have provided it, but they are approaching her budget request with care and skepticism, as they are required to do.
After they have carefully reviewed every part of her budget request, the school board will formulate its own budget request, and this one will be submitted to the County Council. Board members need to make sure that budget request is fully defensible in every regard, and then they will have to make the case that Prince George's taxpayers can and must make good on their responsibility to fund it. They probably won't be asking for a $200 million increase, but they will ask for an increase. And, if they do their jobs properly, taxpayers will be very clear about their choices and their responsibilities.
Asking for Trouble When the legislative session ended last spring with a historic agreement that the state would vastly increase the amount of money spent on education, I was very happy. But at the time I wrote that my joy was tempered by worry. This is what I wrote on April 18 in the Montgomery County version of the Homeroom column: Right now my suspicions center on the worry that this big new spending proposal on education could be used to increase the pressure on the state to legalize casinos and slot machines. If the economy picks up and lots of people buy houses and pay their transfer taxes, the pressure may be bearable. If not, look for ad campaigns accusing anyone who opposes slot machines of wanting to deny poor children the right to read or some other such nonsense.
Those spring worries seem very realistic now that we have a governor who has pledged to bring slots to Maryland and a state Senate president who has long salivated over the idea of gambling money. If we're lucky there will be so much squabbling over who gets what that the whole idea will blow up. But that seems doubtful. The issue of slots and casinos raises very fundamental issues of citizenship. Citizens have an obligation to think about what obligations they collectively share and then find equitable ways to pay for them, eschewing any luxuries that they are unwilling to pay for. A citizenry that wants services without having to pay for them is irresponsible. And a citizenry that invites all the fraud and abuse and corruption that follow whenever professional gamblers are as a main way to pay for schools, libraries and police is asking for trouble.
A Lot of Chutzpah
Speaking of luxuries, during the last legislative session, I took my children and my niece and nephew to Annapolis one day so that they could see the General Assembly in action. I showed them the beautiful state capitol, and we walked through the modest, (small-r) republican House and Senate office buildings, where state legislators conduct their day-to-day business.
I pointed out how well the architecture matched the purpose of citizens coming together to represent their fellow citizens in trying to build a (small d) democratic society. And then we went into the new Senate office building which, on the outside, matches fairly well the other buildings. But I found myself shocked to see the sumptuous use of marble, velvet, and other lavish fittings that are more reminiscent of palaces than a home of democracy.
This crass abuse of public money is topped with the name of the Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a longtime Prince George's politician. Not many democratic leaders would have the chutzpah to name a building -- much less a palace -- after themselves while they are still in office, the way Miller did. And, as I pointed out before, he's the guy who has been salivating to bring gambling money into Maryland for years. I think it's worth asking exactly what he's planning for that money.
Homeroom appears every other week in Prince George's Extra. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, Prince Georges Extra, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20072. The fax number is 301-952-1397; the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. To see previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com, click on the Education page and look for Homeroom under Education Columnists.