By KAYLA NAZAIRE
Superintendent Millard House’s proposed county schools budget for fiscal year 2025 increased by $24.3 million, compared to 2024, despite significant federal COVID-19 relief funding cutbacks.
House released the $2.8 billion proposal in December. The document highlighted a 98% decrease in federal grants under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, for a total loss of over $93 million for the county. House wrote that the COVID-19 grants will expire by this coming fall..
A 2% increase in state and county revenue and use of leftover funds offset the deficit and contributed to a 0.2% rise in spending per student.
However, during the Prince George’s County Board of Education’s proposed budget work session on Feb 2., county education officials voiced concerns about how they will bridge the gap in years to come.
Lisa Howell, chief financial officer for Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), warned that leftover funds, referred to as the fund balance in the proposed budget, are not a sustainable revenue source.
“You don’t use a savings account to pay for your mortgage,” she said.
According to Howell, the fund balance currently stands at $263 million, with only about $30 million available as discretionary funding rather than earmarked for a particular use. The balance is already $210 million short of a best-practice recommendation that the total reserve cover two months of operating costs.
With COVID-19 funding off the table, the county must find a new way to fund educational materials such as Chromebook laptops for each student. Last year, the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) covered Chromebooks and other classroom technology and software.
During the Feb. 2 meeting, PGCPS Chief Information and Technology Officer Andrew Zuckerman said the county would use the last of ESSER funds to purchase enough Chromebooks for fiscal 2025.
The county may not be able to afford to maintain Chromebooks for each student in the 2026 operating budget. Zuckerman mentioned the possibility of providing devices for students’ home use on an as-needed basis.
Still, Zuckerman’s most pressing concern was the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) rollback on the Affordable Connectivity Program. The program allowed the county to offer eligible households low-cost WiFi access and hotspots. According to the FCC, however, the program is expected to be defunded by April 2024.
“That is going to have a massive impact on public education,” Zuckerman said.
The federal shortfalls are only part of the strain on funding in Prince George’s County.
The county is involved in a 30-year repayment plan to developers as a part of a public-private partnership model. The county leveraged the model to build six new schools that opened in 2023.
Howell recently announced that the county would be required to repay the bill from its operating budget. At a public hearing on Jan 25., Donna Christy, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, raised concerns that the same pot of money – the operating budget – goes towards teachers’ salaries, Chromebooks and school lunches.
In a committee meeting on Jan. 22, members of the Prince George’s County Council voiced concerns about cutting other educational programs to pay the school construction costs.
The unexpected operational cost comes at a time when 1,194 instructional staff roles are vacant due to teacher shortages. In addition, more students have to rely on reduced or free lunches, and the demand for disability services and English-language instruction has also increased.
Christy said the school construction deal has resulted in residents footing the bill through increased property taxes while the corporate developers are not required to pay their fair share.
“For years, the easy way has been taken instead of the more difficult, right way,” she said.
Several educators and parents also spoke during two public hearings held by the board.
Phyllis Wright, a William Hall Academy parent, said she would like the county to install metal detectors in all schools. Timothy Meyer, president of Mount Rainier Elementary School PTO, asked the board to hire a coordinator to ensure safe pedestrian route to schools for students.
Speakers advocated for better academic performance in charter schools, more resources for girls’ sports, improved disability services and climate change action.
The county will hold one more public hearing and budget work session on Feb. 15 before recommending any amendments to the proposed budget.