ANNAPOLIS – A plan to restructure the Prince George’s County School Board passed a House panel Friday, but a rougher road is ahead in the Senate, as the General Assembly draws to a close.
When it reaches the Senate, President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D- Calvert, wants to amend the bill to a more radical all-appointed board and sweeten it with millions of additional dollars for the underfunded schools.
“We’ve been anxiously awaiting a restructuring bill to come over from the House,” said Miller, who also represents Prince George’s. “When it gets here we’re going to have a full discussion and perhaps change the composition of the board.”
But there is no consensus yet on whether he will get his way.
Leaders on both sides of the General Assembly say they are confident that a restructuring bill with at least four appointed members will pass. But whether the new board will have four appointed members or nine, and whether it will be tied to new money for the county, is expected to be decided in a last-minute crunch before the Assembly adjourns for the year on April 8.
“The bill is moving,” said Delegate Rushern L. Baker III, D-Prince George’s, county delegation chairman and leader of the restructuring efforts that began in 1999. “I feel good about where we are right now.”
The House bill, the result of months of tinkering and negotiation, would replace the troubled nine-member elected board with a new mix of five elected and four appointed members. It passed the Ways and Means Committee 12-8, and is expected to pass the full House on Saturday or Monday.
“We’re going to keep taking steps to make sure the ship of school system does not run aground,” Baker said. “This was a giant step.”
Delegates speculated all day about what plan the Senate will endorse. At the morning Prince George’s delegation meeting, Delegate Pauline Menes angrily warned against an all-appointed Senate plan and asked Baker to resist it.
“They wait until the last day and then they send something over when we have no time,” she said. “This delegation does not agree with an appointed board.”
But Baker won’t concern himself with speculation and rumor.
“I’d be chasing ghosts,” he said. “We have all learned over the last four years that the Senate sends all kinds of messages and we rarely get a bill.”
The House has expressed frustration recently with Senate dithering on the school issue.
Miller said the Senate is ready to act. The bill he has in mind would create an all-appointed nine-member board that would serve for an interim period. It would tie restructuring to new funding mechanisms such as a proposed county tax on long distance telephone calls, projected to raise $40 million.
His plan also provides for accountability measures to require reduced class sizes and increase teacher salaries and test scores.
“There will be additional resources and also a way to make sure those funds are used wisely,” he said.
The members would be non-salaried and serve for an interim period until a voter referendum would decide whether the board remains appointed or reverts to an elected structure.
Asked whether he had the muscle to push an all-appointed board through, Miller was blunt.
“If they want the money. They’re going to have to acquiesce to get the resources,” he said.
But Miller’s own Senate delegation has never agreed on how to restructure the board.
Senate Delegation Chairman Paul Pinsky supports a blended board and said consensus is possible on either a blended bill or an all-appointed bill. Some Prince George’s lawmakers have said they are willing to compromise on an all- appointed bill if it comes with enough money attached.
Speculation is futile, said Delegation Vice Chairwoman Barbara Frush.
“The rumors come over from the Senate all the time and they just jerk us around,” she said. “They haven’t even gotten a consensus in their own delegation.”
With two weeks left in the session, negotiations could come to a head in a last-minute showdown in conference committee between the two houses. Last year, unresolved differences killed a restructuring bill.
That will not happen this year, both Baker and Miller have said.
“I feel confident we will have a restructuring bill in place in Prince George’s County which, no matter what, is in the best interest of the school system,” Baker said.
Miller has said the same thing, over and over.
“A bill is going to pass,” he has said. “The consensus is change.”
– 30 – 3-22-02