The Prince George's County school board voted unanimously this week to approve a $1.3 billion operating budget for fiscal 2005 that reduces class sizes, improves technology, starts full-day pre-kindergarten and improves school security.

The spending plan, the school system's largest ever, represents a $101 million increase over the current budget.

Despite the increase, schools chief Andre J. Hornsby and the school board had to cut $76.6 million from their original budget proposal after county officials said they could not pay for it. Some of the reductions came from eliminating 200 vacant positions and cutting the proposed increases in the budgets of the five regional directors' offices and from the discretionary funds principals have at each school.

The board approved $9.9 million to reduce class sizes in grades 2, 4, 5 and 6, $20.5 million to buy new textbooks, $10.8 million for technology improvements and $7.8 million to expand early childhood education programs such as full-day pre-kindergarten. The board also decided to set aside money for higher substitute teacher salaries.

At Monday night's board meeting, members also saw a presentation about the school system's improved performance on state standardized tests. Hornsby and the school board also declared that they have erased a $23.7 million budget deficit left by the administration of former schools chief Iris T. Metts. Metts had originally told school board members that the deficit would be much smaller. The flap over the shortfall helped further sour Metts's relationship with the board, and she decided in February 2003 not to seek another contract.

"We have credible assertions that the deficit has been eliminated, as opposed to the incredible assertions we had last year," said board member Robert O. Duncan (Laurel).

Hornsby, who took over last June, has spent much of his first year trying to balance the budget.

"Responsible fiscal operations have been restored," said school board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro).

Tignor to Chair Again

In another unanimous vote Monday, the school board reelected Tignor as its chairman.

Tignor has served as chairman since the board was appointed in June 2002 by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening and then-County Executive Wayne K. Curry, both Democrats.

The law that created the appointed board required a new chairman to be elected after two years. According to the law, the board will become an elected body once again in two years. State legislators eliminated the elected school board two years ago because they was frustrated with its members' frequent infighting and public bickering with Metts.

Unlike the elected school board, the appointed panel has publicly remained united.

No other school board member ran against Tignor for the post.

Board members took turns praising the former state delegate for her work over the past two years.

"She's kept this board focused on the mission at hand, which is the children of Prince George's County," said Vice Chairman Howard W. Stone Jr. (Mitchellville).

"Her ongoing example has helped us function cohesively," said Abby L.W. Crowley (Greenbelt).

Tignor said she was proud of the entire board's accomplishments, which have included hiring a new schools chief and restructuring magnet programs, a requirement of a decades-old desegregation lawsuit settlement.

"Sometimes I'm not at a loss for words, but tonight I am," she said. "Tonight you have truly canonized me."

Test Scores Rising

County school officials continued to celebrate their students' success on the state's two-year-old standardized tests.

Though the school system's results still lagged behind the statewide average, the percentage of county public students passing the reading and math Maryland School Assessments increased in grades 3, 5 and 8. Tenth-grade reading scores also went up. Students in schools that receive Title I federal poverty grants, special education students and children with limited English-speaking skills also performed better this year.

According to the school system's results, the percentage of all students who passed the reading exam increased from 45 last year to 53 this year. In math, the percentage increased from 37 last year to 43 this year.

At a celebratory news conference at Arrowhead Elementary School in Upper Marlboro last week, Hornsby announced that overall, 84 percent of the system's elementary schools had improved scores in reading and 73 percent had higher scores in math. Ninety-three percent of the middle schools increased in reading, while 90 percent increased in math. Of the high schools, 83 percent had higher reading scores.

"It's only the beginning," he said, attributing the gains to an increased focus on reading instruction and the replacement of principals who had not been able to improve performance at their schools.

This is the second year that students in grades 3, 5, 8 and 10 have taken the tests, which were administered this spring. Students in grades 4, 6 and 7 took the exams for the first time this year. Those results, along with math scores for 10th-graders, will not be released until later this summer because state officials have not yet determined passing scores.