ANNAPOLIS – Prince George’s County lawmakers Tuesday celebrated “historic” education reform that abolishes the troubled school board and could funnel about $1 billion in new money to county schools over six years.
“We can declare a new era of education in Prince George’s County,” said County Executive Wayne K. Curry, reflecting with House and Senate delegation leaders on legislative victories in the final hours of the General Assembly, which ended at 11:59 p.m. Monday.
After years of inadequate school funding and failed attempts to revamp the board, lawmakers passed a bill Monday to replace all nine elected board members with appointees, hoping to install a panel they will trust with millions of forthcoming additional dollars.
The bulk of that money is the county’s share of a sweeping statewide reform that rewrites funding formulas to balance poor and wealthy districts. Prince George’s, deemed most needy by a state-appointed panel called the Thornton Commission, gets the largest chunk of new money made available by a 34- cent per pack tobacco tax increase.
In the first year, the county will receive $22.5 million of a statewide $78 million increase.
In 2008, the county will receive $350 million of a statewide $1.3 billion increase as long as lawmakers agree the state can still afford it. Funding the plan in its entirety will cost the state about $3.5 billion over six years, according to the Department of Legislative Services.
“This was as significant as the desegregation of schools,” because of its equalizing power, Curry said.
The plan, which was one of the county’s top priorities this session, had appeared doomed until lawmakers tied it to a cigarette tax hike and struck a surprise late-session compromise requiring them to find additional funding sources after the second year.
“What has happened is a drama beyond our wildest imaginations,” Curry said.
As part of its restructuring plans, the county also will raise a minimum of about $20 million per year for school operating expenses from a new tax on long-distance phone calls, including cell phone calls. Prince George’s will be the first county in the state to tax cell phone calls. The county council must set the tax rate at a minimum of 5 percent under the new law.
The new board will have fairly broad discretion, combined with accountability measures, on spending all the new money. The money might be used to lower class sizes, retain teachers and raise salaries, or fund the opening of 26 new schools, lawmakers said.
Some of the money was contingent upon school board restructuring, because some state lawmakers had balked at sending state money, especially new state money, to the embattled board.
The board has repeatedly irritated lawmakers with its bickering, financial mismanagement and ill-timed attempted firing of the superintendent in the middle of the school year. But it’s structure had outlasted restructuring discussions for at least four years until lawmakers finally struck a deal.
“We’ve reformed the educational system and brought home a record amount of money,” said Rushern L. Baker III, chairman of the county House delegation and a longtime leader of restructuring attempts. “It couldn’t have been done without maturation and struggle and fighting up until the last minute.”
The current board, along with Superintendent Iris T. Metts, will be ousted June 1 and replaced with nine members appointed jointly by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and County Executive Curry. The panel will serve four years before reverting to an elected structure.
At least some board members must be experts in areas such as business, management and education. They will hire a chief executive officer in Metts’ place, as well as academic, accountability and financial officers. They are free to re-hire Metts on a transitional or permanent basis.
When it takes office, the new board will tackle the immediate tasks of reconciling the county budget and preparing to open seven new schools.
Lawmakers hope the scope of the changes will stop the flow of teachers to better-paying counties, convince parents to reconsider sending children to private schools and, eventually, revive test scores.
“It’s going to be a slow process,” said Paul G. Pinsky, chairman of the county Senate delegation. “But it does bring the optimism that we greatly need.”