ANNAPOLIS – The House rejected a plan Wednesday that would have had the state pay for extraordinary costs of Prince George’s County school construction, putting the settlement of a desegregation lawsuit against the county in jeopardy.
County lawmakers said they held little hope that a legislative compromise can be reached before the end of the General Assembly session at midnight Monday.
It is now up to a federal judge to decide if the county can be released from court-ordered desegregation plan that was imposed 26 years ago, they said.
“There’s no guarantee (U.S. District Judge Peter) Messitte is going to go for this,” said Del. Rushern Baker III, D-Prince George’s. “The bottom line is I’m concerned about the settlement.”
Messitte had tentatively agreed to a proposed settlement of the 1972 desegregation lawsuit that would have let the county stop busing students if it built 16 new schools.
Gov. Parris Glendening had agreed to pay $140 million of the $268 million construction project over four years, with the county to pick up the rest.
But the county said it could not afford to pay for its share of all 16 schools. Unless the state helped pay for extra costs that are normally paid by the local government, such as architecture, engineering and land acquisition, the county said it would only have enough money for about 10 schools.
Glendening had agreed to help share these costs, but lawmakers balked at what they saw as special treatment for one county.
The Senate last week voted to prohibit Glendening from changing the funding formula. The House gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that increases the state share of school construction funding from 60 to 75 percent of the projects — but only on those items normally covered by the state.
Even with the increased funding, Prince George’s County lawmakers said the county will not be able to build all 16 schools they need to keep the terms of the settlement.
“We won’t be able to build 16,” said Del. James Hubbard, D- Prince George’s. “We’re going to lose four to six schools on the tail end of this.”
County lawmakers blamed the Baltimore City delegation for the funding defeat. They said the refusal to bend school funding rules for Prince George’s schools was payback for the county’s opposition last year to $240 million in aid given to Baltimore schools.
“Political agendas have insinuated themselves into a concrete problem we’re trying to resolve,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s. He said Baltimore lawmakers “still have a bit of an ax to grind from last year.”
County Executive Wayne Curry had appealed to lawmakers Tuesday, saying relaxing the formula for Prince George’s would be “a special treatment for a special problem.”
Despite the apparent loss, Curry is still dedicated to trying to see the settlement through, an aide said Wednesday.
“The executive is not going to walk away from this settlement,” said Len Lucchi, a Curry spokesman. “He has already pledged to build as many schools as he can.”
Messitte could not comment on the case, his office said. Officials with the Prince George’s County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which brought the original suit and had signed off on the 16-school settlement, could not be reached Wednesday.
A spokesman for Glendening said the governor will continue to work with the legislature to make sure that Prince George’s County officials “have as much flexibility as possible” on the issue.