By Kelley Benham and Hanah Cho
ANNAPOLIS – Finding money for struggling schools topped Prince George’s County Executive Wayne K. Curry’s priorities for the Maryland General Assembly session that began Wednesday.
Curry wants lawmakers to approve a $305.7 million boost for troubled county schools over the next five years, the same amount recommended by a state commission. The extra money, the commission said, is designed to bring the county in line with more affluent and academically successful jurisdictions.
Curry also wants $50 million for ongoing projects to build 26 schools and renovate others in the state’s largest school district.
In the fall, the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence recommended a total of $1.1 billion in additional aid for schools statewide. However, finding the money in the face of a budget shortfall and recession will be one of the General Assembly’s most difficult tasks. Budget analysts predict a two-year $1.7 billion deficit.
“We don’t have the money in the state level,” said Sen. Gloria Lawlah, D- Prince George’s.
Although the budget won’t be released until Jan. 15, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said Wednesday it would be “strong on education” and that Prince George’s school construction projects would be fully funded.
“There will be significant new money for education for all levels,” Glendening said.
Curry also called for the restructuring of the nine-member elected school board. The board and Superintendent Iris T. Metts have squabbled publicly, while county schools have continually scored poorly on standardized tests. Only the city of Baltimore ranks lower.
Lawmakers will consider several bills to restructure the board, either by reducing the number of board members or by adding appointed or at-large members.
Curry stopped short of endorsing any particular plan.
“I’m going to keep an open mind,” he said. “I don’t have a vote in Annapolis.”
Elsewhere in the state capital, a group of Prince George’s county residents protested any restructuring that would limit their voting power. They warned that appointed school board members would be accountable to state legislators, not to local residents, and that the black community in particular would not tolerate such a change.
Michael Hill, a Fort Washington resident and a father of two, said having appointed officials also would weaken parent involvement in the schools.
“A lot of people paid a lot of dues for the right to vote,” Hill said. “I like someone to be accountable to me. Don’t take away my right to vote. The fight is about children, not politics.”
Protesters and politicians said the attention paid to the school board structure distracts from the real issue.
“We’ve got to stop fooling and focus on our root problem,” Delegate Joanne C. Benson, D-Prince George’s, told protesters. “We don’t have enough money to educate our children.” In addition to his education priorities, Curry wants more money for car theft and violent crime prevention programs, the Gateway Arts District along Route 1 and the county’s community college. He also wants laws strengthening police accountability and creating a state office of domestic security. – 30 – CNS-1-9-02