As Andre J. Hornsby quits the post of Prince George's County schools chief, he is leaving behind some pressing fiscal challenges.
These include finishing a half-built high school in Upper Marlboro projected to cost at least $13 million more than the county has budgeted and paring more than $40 million from the school system's requested budget for the coming year to bring it into line with state and county spending plans.
The issues were fast coming into focus yesterday as the Board of Education held its first budget workshop since Hornsby's abrupt resignation May 27 amid an ethics probe and an FBI investigation into his management activities. Interim schools chief Howard Burnett faced the school board in the chair that had been Hornsby's at school headquarters in Upper Marlboro.
Burnett, in a caretaker role expected to last just a few months, gave no immediate sign that he would shift the school system's direction. Hewing carefully to his goal of organizational continuity, Burnett called for "a sound financial plan for next year that ensures continued progress for our students."
In his two years at the helm of the 136,000-student system, Hornsby fought aggressively for initiatives that he believed would improve the performance and self-image of county schools. There were new textbooks, new computer systems, a new curriculum and even a new 5,000-seat high school gymnasium for the new Upper Marlboro campus.
He contended that the gym, which is to have about three times the seating capacity of a typical facility, would bring a star quality to county sports and become a venue for graduations and other large events.
County Council members argued that the gym was an unaffordable extravagance. The council refused to provide $6.5 million in funds to pay for the gym. Late last month, it also cut $7 million from the rest of the construction budget for the high school, which is expected to open in August 2006, to help pay for renovations at three older campuses. Those moves have left the $92 million project with a budget of about $79 million.
For months, Hornsby had said that he would find alternative financing to pay for the gym. County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) indicated recently that he might help, although Johnson did not commit any public funding.
But Hornsby never spelled out a specific financing plan for the gym before his resignation, even as steel girders were rising on the site on Brooke Lane. Now that Hornsby is on his way out -- his resignation is effective June 30, but he is on administrative leave as of Saturday -- some council members wonder what will happen.
"The gym's the big question," said council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel), a longtime opponent of the project. "He truly sold [the school board] a bill of goods on this. Where's the $7 million going to come from? He's now out of the picture, so now who's going to pick it up and make it happen?"
School board members, who in December authorized Hornsby to craft an alternative financing plan, said they did not know how he planned to pay for the gym. They said they would consult with Johnson and the council and seek help if needed. But they insisted that the school would be completed on time.
"You don't open a school with steel beams sticking out," said board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro).
"We have to find the money," said board member Jose Morales (Greenbelt), who oversees capital construction projects. "Hopefully we will, pretty soon. I intend to have that school open in 2006."
For the moment, there is no sense among board members that Hornsby has driven the school system into fiscal trouble. That is a contrast with his predecessor. The previous schools chief, Iris T. Metts, left office in 2003 with the system overspending its revenue by tens of millions of dollars. Hornsby spoke often of how he erased that deficit after he took over.
But some fiscal clouds are hanging over the system. The fiscal 2004 audit, which was due Sept. 30, is still incomplete. The lack of a timely audit has led the state to withhold $40 million in aid this school year. But board members say the audit is expected to be done by June 17, triggering the release of the state aid.
In addition, the school board must determine what programs, if any, to shed from a funding wish list it had assembled with Hornsby. The school system will receive $1.38 billion in 2005-06 from county, state and federal sources. That is an increase from the current budget of $1.27 billion, but less than the $1.42 billion the board had sought for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Of $51.7 million in program improvements sought by the board, proposals that appear in jeopardy include $6.8 million for new textbooks; $6.1 million for software, technology coordinators and computers; $4 million for school-based staff; and several million dollars for other administrative personnel, according to a school system analysis.
The County Council also is pushing an unusually detailed set of changes to the school budget, for example, a cut of $550,000 in public information funds. Hornsby derided the council recommendations last week as "micromanagement."
Tignor said yesterday: "I don't think this is in concrete. This is where we begin dialogue."