ANNAPOLIS – Prince George’s County legislators say education is their top priority for the 2002 General Assembly, but caution that funding for that and two other key issues, health services and economic development, may be hard to secure in this tight budget year.
“Education and the funding for it is the pre-eminent issue,” said Delegate Joan Pitkin, D-Prince George’s. “That’s one thing I think we will be universally supporting.”
Preliminary recommendations by the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence show Prince George’s is the county that stands to benefit most from its findings. The commission, chaired by former county school board president Alvin Thornton, recommends an increase of $305.7 million in state education funding for the county by 2007 — about 30 percent of the commission’s statewide recommendations.
“We need money for (our) school system,” said Sen. Nathaniel Exum, D- Prince George’s. “We think the school system has been underfunded for a number of years. We want to get on (pace) with other school systems.”
Teacher retention and salary, course instruction and increased funding across-the-board will be the critical items for county legislators.
Additional funding should help improve teacher retention, attributed to low salaries, said Pitkin. Too often, she said, teachers trained by the county relocate outside the county for better pay.
Sen. Arthur Dorman, D-Prince George’s, has another solution: a new mentoring program he’ll sponsor next year.
Legislators also said funding equity within the school system must be attained.
“Our schools are uneven,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s. “A number are functioning very well and a number are having problems.”
“We need to make it more equitable across boundaries,” said Pitkin. “Children should be equal in the education provided to them.”
Legislators may not have much money to work with when they convene in January. Deep deficits are forecast for the state budget, and state agencies are under orders to trim more than $200 million in spending over the next two years.
“Across the board, budget deficits are going to affect everything,” said Pitkin. “We have huge holes in Medicaid. We’re looking for money under every rock.”
“Although the county is experiencing revenue shortfalls in certain areas, the impact of a pending recession will not impede our ability to follow through on our commitments,” said Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry. “Due to our conservative fiscal policies and adequate reserves, we expect to weather the current downturn with only minor adjustments to our strategic planning goals.”
Prince George’s lawmakers have other priorities, too.
Improving accessibility to drug prescriptions for senior citizens and funding for a trauma center at Prince George’s Hospital Center lead the county’s health goals.
Despite economic constraints, legislators hope to continue expanding Gov. Parris Glendening’s Smart Growth initiative by focusing on urban redevelopment and transportation improvements.
“Whether it’s the Purple Line and making sure that stays on track, or east-west travel, it raises questions as to where people live,” said Pinsky. “Employers can be assured that people can get to (and from) work.”