Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) arrived at the Prince George's County delegation meeting last week with a message: He and his boss intend to spend more money on the county's public schools.
That is, if lawmakers approve Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal to legalize slot machines.
"No slots, no Thornton," he said after Friday's meeting. Ehrlich (R) was also scheduled to address the delegation but did not make it because of the snowstorm that hit the region.
Last year, state lawmakers voted to increase funding for all 24 school systems over six years after a state committee chaired by former Prince George's school board chairman Alvin Thornton found that the state wasn't spending enough on schools. Prince George's stands to get the majority of the so-called Thornton money -- about $900 million in extra education aid -- over the six years.
But state officials say they don't know where the Thornton money will come from, now that the state is predicting a $1.7 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year. "It's going to be very hard to fund [Thornton] when you don't have the resources," Steele said.
Ehrlich's solution is to allow slot machines at four Maryland raceways and direct nearly two-thirds of the gambling profits -- as much as $800 million a year -- to public schools. Three percent, or roughly $40 million, would be split among the local governments that host the racetracks.
"The reality is if there's no slots, everything goes back on the table . . ." Steele told the delegates. "The slots piece is there because we see it as a keystone of the Thornton funding."
But some Prince George's delegates said they don't think slots will solve the problem because it wouldn't provide a permanent source of revenue. In fact, they said, slots might create even more problems.
"[Thornton] should be funded on some kind of stable revenue source . . ." said Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Bowie). "It shouldn't be based on putting a game out there and attracting people who might not be able to afford to play."
He pointed out that the four neighborhoods that would host the slots -- Pimlico in Baltimore, Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington, Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County and a track under construction in Cumberland -- have more lower-income or minority residents.
The slot bill also hasn't won over Prince George's delegation Chair Carolyn J.B. Howard (D-Mitchellville). Howard said she did not think slot machine profits could alone fund Thornton and would prefer that the money be coupled with another source of revenue, such as a higher gas tax. "It's not going to bring everything we need," she said.
Steele also vowed to fight for Ehrlich's charter school bill, which would allow the alternative schools to exist without the approval of the local school board. Under the plan, the State Board of Education and universities in Maryland could approve the creation of charter schools. The bill would also give charter school teachers the ability to opt out of joining a union.
Steele said charter schools would not siphon off money from existing public schools.
Still, some local school officials say they are not convinced.
"We would have to share money with [the charter schools], and that would certainly have a direct impact on our ability to meet the mission we have in hand, which is the children of Prince George's County," said Howard W. Stone Jr. (Mitchellville), vice chairman of the Prince George's school board. "I don't think there's anything that should compete with that mission."
Lewis Robinson, executive director of the Prince George's County Education Association, the teachers' union, said he was worried about the oversight of charter schools.
"Our position is one that if you're going to try this kind of experiment, those schools have to be held to the same standards of accountability as public schools are," he said.
Robinson also said charter school teachers should be represented by the state teachers' union.
"Let's face it, oftentimes when private employers come in and set up charter schools or whatever, they're going to do it to make a profit."
That could lead to lower wages and less qualified teachers, Robinson said.
Despite some of their philosophical disagreements, Steele and the delegates engaged a jovial conversation.
Test Preparation Plan Rejected On Feb. 6, school board members voted against Metts's plan to prepare high school students for a new state exam that will eventually be required for graduation.
Metts's proposal came after students posted dismal scores on the first-ever administration of the high school assessment exam. Metts asked the school board to request an additional $1.75 million from the County Council to pay for tutorials from private vendors, pretests and staff development. "There's so many kids who need help," she said. "We're scoring at the 25th percentile."
Board members said they were reluctant to ask the County Council for additional money because they recently asked for $4 million to help make up for a $15 million deficit from the fiscal year that ended last June.
"To ask them for more strikes me as not a prudent move on our part," Stone said.
Stone said he also had philosophical problems with the plan. "I believe this program is too little too late," he said.
Metts also proposed that the board ask for another $250,000 to pay for the administration of the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, a national standardized test. The State Board of Education has paid for the exam in the past, but recently announced it would scale back its funding for it.
Metts has used the CTBS scores to determine which students to place in mandatory summer school.
But school board chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) said she thought the administration could find other ways to judge who needs summer school.