By KIT SLACK

Screenshot 2024 01 11 10.46.19 AM
Students beat the drum to welcome legislators to PGCPS’ inaugural legislative day.
Photo credit: Kit Slack

On Dec. 15, beats from a live drumline filled the parking lot at DuVal High School in Lanham as uniformed Air Force JROTC students stood at attention along a red carpet.

Students were welcoming elected state and county officials, arriving at the invitation of leaders of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS). 

Millard House II, who is serving his first year as PGCPS superintendent, laid out the school system’s plans to advocate in the state capitol this coming legislative session, which runs from Jan. 10 to April 8.

The event was the first of three December announcements of PGCPS priorities. House went on to publish a proposed $2.8 billion operating budget on Dec. 18 and, on Dec. 19, a 90 Day Plan Report, described as a roadmap for immediate action.

More state money, fewer strings attached

According to the legislative platform presented Dec. 15, the school district is advocating more state funding to offset the end of federal COVID-19 relief, as well as full funding under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, state legislation passed in 2021 to dramatically increase school funding over 10 years.

PGCPS seeks state funds for student welfare: for universal free lunch, counselors, addiction and crime prevention, immunization and school-based wellness clinics.  

The school district also wants more state funding for virtual education, and to pay more competitive wages to information technology staff.  

School construction is a big focus of the PGCPS legislative platform, including construction to support expansion of pre-kindergarten and career and technical education programs. School construction, according to PGCPS, should be exempt from “uncommonly rigorous stormwater management requirements, including during the construction period.”

PGCPS wants flexibility and control over testing and assessments, and opposes dedicating more classroom time to state tests.

When it comes to staffing and recruitment, the school district says the state should require uniform teacher career ladders in districts throughout Maryland, which would make it more difficult for other school districts to recruit teachers away from the county. PGCPS advocates waiving standardized testing requirements for teachers who fail repeated attempts to pass required exams but are highly effective in the classroom, according to PGCPS evaluations. PGCPS also advocates lifting the requirement that teachers from out of state recertify in Maryland.  

PGCPS advocates a significant increase in funding for special education, in particular, including for incentives to attract qualified staff and for tuition at non-public schools

The school district also seeks more state funding for transportation, electric buses and bus driver recruitment.

The county school board should have authority to appoint the superintendent, according to the PGCPS platform. Currently, the county executive selects the superintendent with the help of a three-person committee whose members are selected by the governor and the state superintendent. 

Show of unity, start of dialog

After laying out PGCPS’ legislative platform, Superintendent House and school board chair Judy Mickens-Murray invited state and county legislators to join PGCPS officials in lobbying efforts around shared priorities. 

The PGCPS legislative day was a new event and a significant step for a district that, as recently as 2021, began the legislative session with a dispute between board members over issues including a state lobbyist’s contract.

Former board chair Juanita Miller grabbed the microphone at the end of the presentation to thank state legislators in attendance for their advocacy for county students at the state level in prior years. 

“I don’t want anybody to walk away from here today thinking that our state legislators have not provided for this county and our education system,” Miller said, to loud applause, adding, “I am so happy that the superintendent and the chief of staff brought them and brought us together today, because we’ve been working in silos, and we’ve got to start working together.”

State and county officials had questions for PGCPS leadership.

Wanika Fisher, a county councilmember (District 2) who served as a state representative from 2019 to 2022, asked for plans and data on improving parent engagement as well as data showing specifically how increased state funding was helping students in the county. 

Addressing history curriculum mandates, Fisher said “Latino, Black and brown students need to know where they are coming from,” citing a need for LGBTQ+ history as well. 

Judith White, PGCPS chief academic officer, outlined county curriculum reviews designed to ensure that “every student sees a mirror of themselves” and the “goodness in their people, in their contributions in the world and how they will continue to build on that.” Staff reiterated, however, that the school district opposes unfunded curriculum mandates at the state level.

Nicole Williams, who leads the state delegation for District 22, asked what PGCPS is doing to address achievement gaps and chronic absenteeism. 

PGCPS Chief Accountability Officer Douglas Strader told legislators that six out of 10 PGCPS students come from families who live in poverty, and one out of four PGCPS students speak more than one language, factors often not taken into consideration when looking at achievement data.

House said that he welcomes ideas from state legislators and wants PGCPS to be at the table crafting solutions that hit the “sweet spot around accountability and supporting our students.”

Rahsheen Davis, the county’s chief of schools, cited new plans to address absenteeism, including educating parents about the importance of elementary students arriving on time and informing parents earlier in the day about student absences. Currently PGCPS informs parents of student absences via an evening robocall.

Jolene Ivey, current chair of the county council, expressed caution about state requirements for what the county spends on schools. Ivey previously told the Washington Post that high property taxes and a looming county budget deficit made state requirements for school funding problematic.   

PGCPS proposes budget for next year

Security and online learning account for the biggest staffing increases in Superintendent House’s proposed operating budget, released Dec. 18, the Monday after the Friday session with legislators. 

The budget proposes 59 new full-time equivalent security positions across the district’s 200 schools and 41 more employees for virtual classrooms. The budget forecasts an increase from 55 to 600 students who will require in-home and hospital teaching.

The budget would also add 23 full-time equivalent employees for school athletic programs. 

The school board will approve the final operating budget this summer, after adjusting for state and county funding decisions made this spring as well as public feedback and revisions by the school board.

The $2.8 billion proposed budget is a 0.9% increase over this year’s, with a projected enrollment increase of 0.7%, to 133,000 students. Nearly $21,000 would be spent per K-12 student.

The proposed budget forecasts an $86 million reduction in federal funding as COVID-19 relief money runs out. It includes about $960 million in county funds, an increase of about $16 million over the prior year. About $1.6 billion comes from the state, a $43 million increase over the prior year. The budget shows PGCPS carrying over a $120 million fund balance, $50 million more than the prior year. 

Superintendent House’s 90-day report and roadmap

Dec. 19, a day after House published the proposed budget, he released a report explaining new initiatives he intends to take on this school year. 

House said he has commissioned a transportation audit and a website functionality audit.  

As previously reported in these pages, PGCPS is installing metal detectors in all high schools this school year, and is requiring high schoolers to wear clear backpacks.

House listed new strategies for learners with special needs as a top priority in terms of equity, though the report did not include specifics. 

House said he intends to convene and collaborate with parent, student, principal and teacher advisory committees and is considering hiring more parent engagement assistants. About 80 schools in the county currently have a staff person in that role, according to House’s report. 

“We can’t do this alone,” House said in a video released with the report. “We need your active participation, your partnership and your accountability. Moving forward, please know that your feedback will continue to be valued in our decision making and in everything we do. We are not just building a school district, we are crafting a community-driven future.”

 

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Residents can attend public hearings on the PGCPS proposed budget Jan. 25, Feb. 1, and Feb. 15, at 7pm. More information at .pgcps.org/offices/board-of-education.

Carter Ross, who is a member of both the Parent and Community Advisory Committee for PGCPS, and the board of Streetcar Suburbs Publishing, reviewed this piece for accuracy.