UPDATE: Impassioned plea for school funding falls short, county council overrides veto of parks & rec tax
BY MADELINE ALPERT — Updated on June 9 at 7:17 p.m. Despite a two-month marathon of public pleas around Prince George’s County and a last minute compromise offer, county officials fighting for the “minimum needed” to improve public schools came up short.
With a 6-3 vote on May 28, the Prince George’s County Council approved a $34 million increase for school funding and a four percent property tax increase. The amount is much lower than what County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s original FY16 budget proposed. That budget included an additional $133 million for schools and 15.6 percent property tax increase over three years.
Signs that the original budget plan was headed for trouble were clear at earlier public meetings, including one at Nicholas Orem Middle School (NOMS) in Hyattsville, where the school’s principal made a passionate appeal.
“We need the money, we really do,” said Principal Theresa Merrifield. “Our population has grown from 700 in 2013 to … approximately 1,000 students next year,” added Merrifield, who said immigration is fueling the increase in numbers.
English language learners make up the majority of the student body, and NOMS receives additional funding as a Title I school because a high percentage of students qualify for free or reduced lunches. NOMS would have received an estimated $143,949 in additional funding if the council had passed the budget originally proposed by Baker.
The original plan would have raised an additional $135,657 for Hyattsville Middle School, an extra $93,000 for Hyattsville Elementary School, and an extra $380,437 for Northwestern High School. A fraction of those amounts will likely be available under the approved budget.
The county executive held another town hall at University Park Elementary School (UPES). At both locations, Baker’s plan received pushback.
One longtime community member at UPES said, “[I would] move to Delaware if the tax increase is approved. I deserve to afford my home.” Others said they couldn’t trust that the increased funds would be used effectively and were concerned that the tax hikes could harm the county, where taxes are already among the highest in the state and where foreclosures, poverty, and lack of business investment are serious problems.
Before the county council vote, Baker cut his school funding request down from $133 million in additional school funding to $65 million.
“[That] is the minimum investment we can make that will move us forward and significantly improve our ranking in the state,” Baker said. He said with even this reduction, the schools would have to back off on plans for a universal breakfast program, literacy coaches in middle school, an expansion of gifted and talented programs, targeted professional development and comprehensive digital literacy.
With an additional $65 million, Baker said, the school system would have continued expansion of Pre-K and of college and career programs, would negotiate retention pay for teachers, implement arts integration in targeted areas and increase family engagement resources.
As of press time, it is unclear how much additional funding public schools that serve Hyattsville students will receive. A press release from the county council said a planned $34 million increase to school funding was directly linked to an unfunded mandate by the State of Maryland that will shift teacher pension costs to the county. According to county officials, legislation was introduced to reserve up to $25 million of county revenue from MGM National Harbor for education, which includes Pre-K through 12 education, Prince George’s Community College, Prince George’s County Memorial Library System.
The county council also said a performance audit of the school system would begin this summer to find out how money is being spent and increase residents confidence in the school system.
Prince George’s County Schools CEO Dr. Kevin M. Maxwell said, “This council action continues the tradition of chronic underfunding for our schools.”
On Tuesday, June 8, Baker announced in a press conference his decision to veto a 1.5 percent tax increase towards the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission tax.
“If we are going to increase taxes, we should increase them to invest in education. I am vetoing this tax increase because it was never discussed as an option for the taxpayers to scrutinize,”Baker said.
While the county executive said his staff is still reviewing the rest of the budget, the county council voted unanimously to override Baker’s veto.
“Today’s council decision prevents the closure of six community centers and preserves programs essential to building stronger and healthy youth and communities, including the Safe Summer program at 24 centers around Prince George’s County,” County Council Chairman Mel Franklin said in a statement.