The Prince George's County school board plans to cut more than $150 million from schools chief Iris T. Metts's $1.36 billion budget request before sending it to the County Council for approval.
And board members say the financial crunch could put the school system's plans to restructure its magnet programs on hold.
"I think it's going to be a tough year," said board member Robert O. Duncan (Laurel), chairman of the board's finance, audit and budget committee. "It's going to be extremely difficult to enhance magnets."
With the state predicting a $1.2 billion deficit next year, board members acknowledge that they will have to significantly pare down Metts's request -- which represents an increase in spending of $256 million over the current year.
This month, Metts unveiled her spending plan for the next fiscal year: a $1.36 billion budget that would reduce class sizes, continue mandatory summer school and all-day kindergarten, and increase salaries for teachers and administrators. She said her budget request reflects the true needs of the 135,000-student system, which typically ranks second to last on state standardized tests.
But Duncan and school board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) recommended last week that the board ask the county for only an additional $50 million in funding, rather than Metts's proposed $208.6 million.
"It seemed like a reasonable first stage," Duncan said, adding that the board hopes to have its spending plan ready for the county by mid-February.
Board members are bracing themselves for a tough fiscal year, even though the state has pledged another $42 million in state aid to the county based on the Thornton Commission's recommendation that the state change its education funding formula.
Folded into that money is a $14 million grant that the school system has relied on for years to run its magnet program -- which typically costs about $20 million a year for the specialized academic programs at various schools.
In a letter to state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky and Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard, chairs of the county's Senate and House delegations, Tignor asked lawmakers to seek extra funding in Annapolis for the magnets. "While we are immensely grateful for the additional funding from Thornton and the flexibility that local boards of education have been given to set education priorities, the Prince George's County school system can ill afford a $14 million loss," Tignor wrote.
The response from lawmakers, however, has been anything but promising.
Prince George's stands to get the most -- about $900 million -- in state education aid increases over the six-year lifespan of the so-called Thornton plan, named for former Prince George's school board chairman Alvin Thornton.
"I don't think there'll be any sympathetic audience in the Maryland General Assembly; $42 million is the largest [increase] in the state of Maryland," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), chair of the House Appropriations Committee. "They have to make the decisions on how to spend those dollars. The money is already in their budget."
Tignor repeated her plea Friday, when the school board members, who were appointed in June after state legislators abolished the elected board, appeared before the Prince George's County delegation.
"I don't know where we're going to get that money," state Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah (D-Prince George's) told the board. "The mind set is that you've gotten a big slice of the pie."
But board members say their needs are still great and the school system deserves more. And with part of a $15 million budget deficit in the fiscal year that ended last June still to be financed, the school board is going to have to make some tough financial decisions.
Magnets were created 18 years ago as a desegregation tool. But last summer, U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte ordered the school board to restructure the programs when he ended a decades-long desegregation lawsuit.
Earlier this school year, Metts proposed a system-wide restructuring of the magnets but withdrew that proposal amid complaints from parents. Instead, she proposed expanding magnets at three high schools next school year -- a proposal that might now be in jeopardy.
"I think we heard it pretty loud and clear in Annapolis that there's not going to be any additional magnet money," said board member Abby L.W. Crowley (Greenbelt), chair of the board's instruction and accountability committee.
Of the high school magnet proposal, she said, "I don't know how we're going to afford that."
At a special school board meeting Saturday on the budget, board members urged Metts to recommend how to proceed with the magnet program without adequate funding.
"The board ultimately needs to reach some decision about magnets," said board member John R. Bailer (Camp Springs) at the school board's budget work session on Saturday. "I'm not predicting what that decision will be but it's high time that the choice be made."
Redistricting Plan Rejected
The Prince George's County school board rejected a plan to redraw the attendance boundaries for 10 high schools, including a highly debated proposal to transfer students from Bowie High School to DuVal High in Lanham.
Parents had protested moving students from the county's No. 2 SAT-performer (948 average) to its No. 11 (832 average).
Board members said they wanted more time to decide how to redistribute students across overpopulated high schools in the county, though they did approve a plan to move 132 students from Northwestern High School in Hyattsville to High Point High over four years. Some also argued that they should spend the year looking for ways to beef up DuVal's programs.
Willie Miller, president of DuVal's PTA, said that is what he's wanted all along. "There has been nothing done to improve the condition of the school," he said. "That's what we want. We want the school improved."
The board approved boundary changes for 14 elementary schools in preparation for the opening of two new elementary schools -- Colmar Manor and Samuel P. Massie -- in August.
The schools affected are: Bladensburg, Lamont, Mount Rainier, Riverdale, Rogers Heights, Seat Pleasant, Templeton, Berkshire, Carmody Hills, Kettering, Longfields, Morningside, Pointer Ridge, and Skyline.
Also on Jan. 23, the board voted to locate a new high school scheduled to open in 2007 in Upper Marlboro on what is known as the Canby Tract Site, on Brooke Lane off Richie Marlboro Road. The board had considered placing the high school in Bowie.
The new high school will serve students in the southern and central portions of the county and will cost almost $80 million to build -- the source of which has yet to be found.
For more information on the boundary changes, parents can call the board office at 301-952-6115.