Some experts question the value of a high school diploma. Efforts to reform secondary education are increasing as colleges seek better-prepared students and businesses demand a more skilled workforce. Bill Gates, the Microsoft Corp. chairman, has called the typical U.S. high school "obsolete."

Tell that to the students wearing the gowns and mortarboards this spring in Prince George's County. Tell it to their proud families, teachers and principals.

Last week, Forestville Military Academy handed out 167 diplomas at Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, the public school system's first 2005 commencement. Twenty-five more graduation exercises were scheduled through this week, to culminate in Bowie High School's ceremony Friday evening at the University of Maryland's Comcast Center.

The school system has not yet calculated the total number of diplomas issued or the graduation rate. Last year, the rate was 86.7 percent.

Here are the class valedictorians: Jonathan Gomez, Bladensburg; Jessica Moorefield, Bowie; Isata Kallon, Central; Gemma A. Easterling, Flowers; Joy Tydings, Crossland; Bolanle Ogunmakin, DuVal; Robert Donnelly, Roosevelt; Erin Hill, Fairmont Heights; Michelle S. Wright, Forestville; Christy M. Brandly, Douglass; Greg M. Baesa, Friendly; Timothy Martin, Gwynn Park; Jennifer Barkley, High Point; Tonasha A. Johnson, Largo; Erica Doyle, Laurel; Katherine Conner, Northwestern; Eric M. Jordan, Oxon Hill; Crystal L. Manalac, Parkdale; Anita C. Jarman, Potomac; Jamie Heard, Suitland; Jason Alexis, Surrattsville; and Matthew Schutz, Tall Oaks.

For Bladensburg High, the graduation exercises marked another transition. This month, the school -- which has a long history and has been a four-year public high school since 1936 -- is ending four years in temporary quarters in Bowie. In August, it will move back inside the Beltway to a completely rebuilt campus in its hometown. But not the graduating seniors. "Our class of 2005 was never in a real high school," Principal Madeline Blanding said. "It was very difficult for them."

Another graduation footnote: The Forestville diplomas actually were awarded to students who were not in the military-education program. It marked a final year of transition for an academy once known as Forestville High.

Budget Ax Poised

First, the Maryland General Assembly passed its spending plan. Then the County Council followed suit. Now, for the Board of Education, it's budget crunch time. The school system, second-largest in the state, must pare $43.4 million from what the board originally requested for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

To be sure, the school budget of $1.38 billion is still about $100 million more than the $1.27 billion the schools are receiving in the current fiscal year. But the school board's wish list of "program improvements" may be in some jeopardy because much of the new money is obligated for teacher and administrator salaries.

Here's how the $43.4 million rollback target emerged. County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) proposed $20.4 million less than the board sought. About $25 million more in anticipated state aid failed to materialize. At the last minute, the county chipped in another $2 million to offset the loss.

Comings and Goings

Most of the county now knows now about the departure of schools chief Andre J. Hornsby. Last Friday the school board met on short notice at 5 p.m. to accept his resignation and appoint human resources chief Howard Burnett as interim chief.

There are other new faces, as well. The new student member on the school board will be Brittney R. Davis of Eleanor Roosevelt High, elected to the post by a countywide student government group. Davis is a gospel choir singer, honor roll student, cheerleader and coxswain for an Alexandria boating crew team.

She replaces Morgan A. Shepard, who is graduating from Charles H. Flowers High and heading to Georgetown University.

The student member sits with the rest of the board at public meetings in Upper Marlboro and is able to cast some votes, but not on such key matters as budgets, personnel, school closings, boundary changes and student disciplinary cases. Nor does the student join the nine board members with full voting rights in closed-door executive sessions.

On the Council of Prince George's County PTAs, a new slate of leaders was elected last week. The president will be Darren Brown, replacing Howard Tutman III; the first vice president will be Walter Searcy. The PTA council was in the news this spring with an unusual vote of no confidence in Hornsby.

Four Principals Departing

Other school leaders are also leaving their positions. Tamera A. Sherr, principal of Glenn Dale Elementary, is moving to take over a Montgomery County school. Principals Leo Plourde of Scotchtown Hills Elementary in Laurel, Sheila M. McConnell of Arrowhead Elementary in Upper Marlboro and Lois Hewitt of Montpelier Elementary in Laurel are retiring, interim chief Howard Burnett said. Plourde served 34 years in the system; McConnell and Hewitt each served 30 years.