As Prince George's County schools chief, Andre J. Hornsby championed a 5,000-seat high school gymnasium that the county government refused to fund. Now Hornsby is gone, but the mini-arena he envisioned for graduations, basketball tournaments and other major events is more than half-built, and county officials quietly concede that they will be stuck with the bill.
At issue is about $6.5 million -- the difference between the $92 million cost of a new high school in Upper Marlboro, including Hornsby's extra-large gym, and the $85.5 million in state and county funding approved for the project with the expectation that the gym would have a capacity of 1,500 to 2,000 seats more typical for local schools.
When construction began in May 2004, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and County Council members contended that the $6.5 million would be better spent renovating or replacing aging campuses. Hornsby pushed ahead anyway, shrugging off critics who said he was overstepping his authority. The debate festered for a year, until Hornsby resigned in May amid an ethics controversy.
School and county officials said Thursday that they had worked out an unusual deal to bridge the gap through operating funds over the next four or five years. Ordinarily, money to build and equip a new school would flow through a separate capital budget, allowing officials to weigh competing projects.
A council vote of approval on the first installment of this funding -- about $1.5 million -- is expected in the next several weeks, critics of the gym acknowledge. Council member Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills), one of the most persistent critics, said he is powerless to stop the gym.
"It's happening," Knotts said. "No doubt about it. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But you cut your losses, I guess."
Council Vice Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel), another critic, said: "I'm not totally satisfied with the result, but it's the agreement we reached in exchange for a better working relationship on capital funding issues."
School and county officials agreed to the deal in a July 21 meeting, according to several participants. Among those present were Dernoga, Knotts, council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville), school board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro), school board member Jose Morales (Greenbelt) and interim schools chief Howard A. Burnett.
"We didn't win," Morales said Thursday. "The students of Prince George's County won."
Thomas Himler, Johnson's management and budget director, said the county executive was in accord with the deal. Himler said the school still amounted to "an $85.5 million capital project." He said $6.5 million in operating funds -- drawn from the same revenue sources that pay teacher salaries and other year-to-year costs -- would help furnish and equip the school.
The funding maneuver, if approved by the council, would free capital money to finish the gym.
"It's a little unusual," David Lever, executive director of the state's Public School Construction Program, said. "But there's nothing wrong with it."
The Upper Marlboro high school, which the school board is to open in August.
Other high school gyms in the county typically seat fewer than 2,000. The newest, at Bladensburg High School, seats 1,608For graduations, school officials often use the University of Maryland's Comcast Center or the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro.
A new venue at North Point High School in Charles County, often cited by Prince George's school officials as a model for their project, seats 5,000 for graduations and 4,000 for basketball.
But critics call the Upper Marlboro gym an extravagance when many of the 199 existing schools in Prince George's urgently need upgrades to roofs, boilers, air conditioning or other systems. Seven schools head a list for new roofs or boilers next school year, at a cost of $5.8 million; 33 schools are in line for $27.5 million later.
Staff writer Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.