Thursday, July 10, 2008

Prince George's County questions school board

Headquarters move raises concerns as construction is delayed

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Prince George’s County leaders are calling on the county school board to re-examine its spending after board members voted to move to a new headquarters and delay construction on some needed schools.

‘‘This is like building a garage on your house when your kitchen and bathroom are falling apart,” state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Dist. 26) of Fort Washington said of the decision to delay funding on proposed high schools.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson, Muse and state Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Dist. 23) of Bowie said the board’s recent decisions need to be reconsidered.

Board members raised eyebrows in their funding votes last month when they split 6-to-4 to spend $36 million over the next 10 years to lease out a new headquarters for system administrators in Upper Marlboro. The decision, which went against recommendations from Superintendent John E. Deasy, came one day after the county announced it was facing a $48 million shortfall in funding that would cause widespread cutbacks.

‘‘I don’t understand it,” Johnson said last week.

Johnson hopes to meet with the school board to discuss his concerns soon. Muse and Peters, who lead the county’s Senate delegation, said they also plan to meet with board leaders to talk about moving up delayed plans for a new school in south Bowie and a replacement school for Oxon Hill High School.

Peters said plans for three other schools have also been delayed, but he was not able to provide the names.

Verjeana M. Jacobs, school board chairwoman, blamed the delays on the state for not approving the projects, and said the County Council ultimately shifted them back into the county’s capital improvement plan.

‘‘It’s the state’s decision to fund it,” said Jacobs.

Muse and Peters said they hope to persuade the county government and school board to once again spend money to buy land and design for future schools without waiting for formal approval by state agencies first. Getting approval in advance helps county officials know how much money would be paid by the state, but can delay the start of work.

‘‘If you wait, their first answer is always going to be no. This is the way it is done in other counties,” said Peters, who said ‘‘forward funding” on planning and designing for future schools can be reimbursed by the state later.

‘‘Once you’ve started, it’s harder to say no,” he said.

Jacobs declined to comment on Johnson’s remarks about the new headquarters, saying she had not heard from the executive. However, she said leasing the office space in Upper Marlboro has been in the works for more than a year and will let administrators from departments across the county operate under one roof.

‘‘It is a good business decision,” she said.

Neither Johnson nor the senators have power to intervene directly on school funding decisions. Though the county can cut the amount it gives to the school system, the school board decides how to allocate the money it receives from the county and state. State lawmakers can only seek reductions in state funding for the system.

The moves by Johnson and the senators could mark a shift in elected officials’ involvement with the school board, which has had a long history of turmoil. Plagued by infighting and mismanagement, the elected board was replaced by an appointed group in 2002, and reverted again to an elected board in 2006. The school system has had three superintendents over the last decade, as well.

In recent years, officials have deferred to the elected school group on education matters, Johnson said.

‘‘We tried to keep a hand off,” he said. ‘‘But I really think the board and us really need to sit down.”

County officials say the state still owes Prince George’s roughly $14 million in payments they funded forward in the past, which is why they discontinued the practice in the current year.

But Peters said the state has already paid down the deficit in back funding, and that local legislators expect to get more in the future.

‘‘In the past two years, we’ve already gotten more for the county than in the first two of the Ehrlich administration,” Peters said. ‘‘This is how it’s done. We are putting our money where our mouth is. The county needs to, too.”

Though he disagreed on the construction delays for schools, Peters said he understands the decision by officials to move their headquarters, which is overcrowded and in poor condition.

‘‘Teachers come there to interview who are also interviewing with Montgomery County, Anne Arundel County,” he said. ‘‘When you interview at a building that is run down, believe it or not, it makes a big difference.”

Peters said the school board could renovate the old headquarters to open as a school, as well.

‘‘It could be looked at as a net [gain],” Peters said.

E-mail Daniel Valentine at dvalentine@gazette.net.