Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III is in the fight of his political life, trying to persuade the county council to back a highly unpopular tax increase that would generate more money for a long-struggling school system.
He wants to undo a 35-year freeze on property tax rates and raise taxes by 15.6 percent over the next three years at a time when residents are still recovering from a foreclosure crisis that decimated per-capita wealth in the nation’s richest majority-black jurisdiction.
The money, says Baker (D), is a critical step in restructuring county schools, which he seized control of, to much fanfare, two years ago. But the proposal, which the council will approve or reject May 28, has generated a storm of opposition from residents who are already the most highly taxed in the region. And with less than two weeks until the vote, not a single council member has pledged support.
County lawmakers say they are willing to consider an increase in property taxes — perhaps 3 percent — but cannot fathom a hike of the magnitude Baker has proposed. They are equally determined to block Baker’s plan to address a shortfall in the county budget through furloughs and layoffs of non-schools employees.
The council is trying to craft an alternative budget proposal but so far has nothing concrete.
Baker counters that a modest tax increase would not bring about the boost in school performance that he says is the key to drawing new residents, businesses and prosperity. He says support for his proposal is building, albeit slowly, among some residents and has vowed to keep lobbying the council until the vote is taken.
“This is my response to what the public asked me to do,” said Baker, who is frequently mentioned as a potential 2018 gubernatorial candidate. “Everybody starts with the education. They ask me, ‘What are you going to do about the education system?’ Well, this is what I’m doing.”
Despite some improvement in recent years, students in Prince George’s still lag far behind in school performance. Eighth-graders made double-digit gains in math and reading proficiency in 2012, for example, but were still 18 and 26 percentage points, respectively, behind their peers in more affluent Montgomery County.
SAT scores average 200 points lower than state and national averages and nearly 400 below Montgomery’s. One in 4 students fail to graduate high school on time, bucking a national trend of rising graduation rates.
The school system has struggled to attract children from the county’s wealthier families and has an increasing number of English-language learners with expensive educational needs.
“It’s the Achilles’ heel of Prince George’s County,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said.
As a state delegate in 2002, Baker led a legislative fight to temporarily replace the county’s dysfunctional elected school board with an appointed caretaker panel. Some activists accused him of taking power from the voters.
He ran three times for county executive, finally winning in 2010. Each time, school reform was a central theme. Two years into his first term, he asked state lawmakers to let him take over the system.
The legislature passed a compromise bill that allowed Baker to pick the schools chief and appoint the chair and vice chair of the Board of Education.
“He didn’t get everything he wanted, and I’ve got to tell you that I would’ve opposed a full takeover,” Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) said. “But I think it was the right move. Now, in hindsight, I see the changes.”
Baker’s $1.9 billion education budget request — the largest in the county’s history — means unraveling a property-tax cap voters instituted decades ago.
TRIM, or Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders, set the residential tax rate at 96 cents per $100 of assessed value, limiting revenue available for schools, police and other services. Proponents say it has protected taxpayers.
But the tax rate is still 23 cents higher per $100 of assessed value than in Montgomery which has a different cap in place. And once other taxes and fees are added in, residents of Prince George’s also pay more than their neighbors in Charles and Howard counties.
To circumvent the tax cap, which voters upheld two different times, Baker is relying on a 2012 state law that says county governments can raise taxes above charter limits if the additional money will go directly to public education.
Baker’s budget would generate $135.7 million in additional revenue, which schools chief Kevin Maxwell would use to expand pilot programs such as full-day pre-kindergarten, digital literacy and instructional coaches. Baker and Maxwell say they are determined to have their school system ranked among the 10 best in Maryland by 2020.
“We are going to be the national model that people look to,” said Segun Eubanks, chairman of the Board of Education.
Education experts say the programs Maxwell is touting can boost performance, but there are no guarantees. Implementation and holding educators accountable are key.
“The potential returns are huge,” said Jennifer Rice, University of Maryland associate dean of education, who is working with the school system. “But what’s not clear to me yet is how or why this amount of money and these services will lead to higher graduation rates.”
Brown University professor Kenneth Wong said it was highly unusual to have a double-digit tax increase to fund schools — even one that would be implemented over three years. “This is a bold, big leap forward,” Wong said. “It sends a strong signal that the new team will take school reform seriously.”
While Prince George’s already draws considerable state and local funding because of its large populations of poor students and non-native English speakers, the county’s own contribution to the schools budget lags behind what Montgomery and Howard allocate. Under Baker’s proposal, that would change.
“We keep asking the state for money, but what are we doing for ourselves?” asked Alvin Thornton, an education professor at Howard University who lives in the county and supports Baker’s plan. “If we don’t fund our schools competitively, nothing else will be competitive.”
Baker has the backing of the teacher’s union, school administrators, community advocates such as CASA de Maryland and the Prince George’s Business Roundtable, some of whose members see more schools spending as a business investment.
“Getting workers to live here has been difficult,” said Venkat Subramanian, president and chief executive of Greenbelt-based tech firm Angarai. “They are not willing to be in the area because of the school district and property values.”
But the administration seems to be losing the argument among civic associations, police and fire unions, and many longtime residents.
Despite a school-by-school breakdown of how the money would be spent, colorful graphics showing what the tax increase would look like over time, and appearances on radio and television new shows, Baker has encountered anger and hostility at town-hall meetings throughout the county.
Poor school performance is a parenting failure, some opponents of the plan have said, and not an issue solved by boosting the average homeowner’s tax bill by $300 a year. Others say they just don’t trust the school system to use the extra funds wisely.
“My property will not be a piggy bank for the county,” Cassandra Freeman of Cheltenham said at one forum.
Baker has tried to win support by telling the story of how he, too, once lost faith in the school system. His daughter Aja was struggling in first grade, and he was ready to send her to private school. But his wife pushed Baker to get more involved in the neighborhood school and demand the instruction Aja needed.
“The school system that sits next to your house determines how much your house is worth,” Baker said. “If we wanted that property we bought in Cheverly to go up in value, it was our responsibility to make sure that the school system was better. . . . That’s why it’s important for us to invest.”
Younger, newer families with school-age children seem more open to the tax increase than those who have lived in the county for many years.
“We need this,” said Lidia Rivas, whose 9-year-old son is part of the school system’s fast-growing Hispanic population. The youth struggles with reading, Rivas said, and could use help from one of the literacy coaches Maxwell is hoping to hire.
Council Chairman Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) said he is determined to forge consensus among the council members. With last week’s announcement that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) would withhold about $20 million in expected state education funding, support on the council for a modest tax increase seemed to gain some traction.
Baker said Thursday that he is willing to compromise somewhat but would consider vetoing the budget if the nine-member council does not find a way to significantly boost school spending. The council would need six votes to override such a veto.
As the proposal has been debated at public meetings in recent weeks, some council members have been openly confrontational.
Karen Toles (D-Suitland), for example, battered school officials with a barrage of questions about the system’s spending habits, saying 95 percent of the residents who came to her budget town hall opposed the tax increase.
“I don’t think the administration has made a convincing argument,” she said.
And Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel) called Baker’s comparison of Prince George’s and Montgomery “disingenuous” — prompting an angry response from Baker.
“I say that our kids are just as good as anybody else around here,” Baker yelled.
Lehman then accused Baker of ambushing the public with the proposed tax increase and failing to seek consensus.
“I want an improvement plan,” she said over murmurs from the audience and Baker’s interjections. “But this cannot be presented as an all or nothing.”