LARGO – The fight over the planned closure of Forestville High School has expanded to include the county council.
Nine of the evening’s 17 citizen speakers at the council’s March 8 budget listening session addressed the state of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) in their remarks, with six of those specifically advocating for Forestville High to remain open. The school had been slated for closure by PCGPS Chief Executive Officer Kevin Maxwell, a decision he re-affirmed, in spite of strong community outcry, in a letter to parents sent March 7.
Advocates for the school pressed council members to save the school.
“We as adults have to look out for our kids,” said Kenneth Smith. “I’m asking that y’all take a stand. Hear us. Hear us as parents, hear the children.”
“Why is the renovation of Suitland (High School) so imperative that Forestville has to close?” asked Kimberly Harley.
Tamara Brown-Davis, a parent teacher association member, related the school’s closure to another of the meeting’s main purposes: to provide the public with an overview of the county’s financial situation (including the structural deficit) and the preliminary report by the Blue Ribbon Commission studying the deficit and ways to reduce it.
In his report, Blue Ribbon Commission Chairman Earl Adams, Jr. mentioned Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders (TRIM) and the homestead tax credit as two factors holding county revenues down. Brown-Davis suggested the school system, which receives over 60 percent of the county’s budget, would need to be improved before citizens would agree to change those programs.
“Citizens are still not ready to get rid of TRIM or, as I heard tonight, homestead tax credit, on the November ballot or any other ballot,” Brown-Davis said. “And here’s why: the majority of our tax dollars goes to education. The Prince George’s County public school system actually has, under Dr. Maxwell’s leadership, increased in middle management.”
Several council members said they empathized with the parents, but pointed out that Maxwell has the sole authority to make decisions regarding school closures and boundary changes.
“I got to tell you, we have zero authority over school boundaries or anything related to closing schools,” Councilman Mel Franklin said. “That is state law. We have literally zero authority to deal with that.”
Councilwoman Karen Toles said County Executive Rushern Baker III may be the one to contact.
“There is a county executive in this that does have some authority and some relationship with our superintendent,” Toles said. “I would encourage you to call and email his office. I stand with those at Forestville High School.”
Others on the council tried to explain Maxwell’s reasoning as they understood it.
“It’s not an easy thing, it’s an emotional thing, but I think it’s fair to say most people would agree that you can’t, over a long period of time, defend a chronically under-enrolled school if at the same time that under-enrolled school is a dilapidated one,” said Councilwoman Mary Lehman. “Nobody wants our kids going to school in buildings that are falling apart and under-enrolled.”
Councilwoman Deni Taveras, who represents District 2, pointed to the need to construct several more schools in the northern part of the county at an estimated total cost of $8 billion.
“Where is the money coming from? We have 28 schools that are underutilized and have populations at 38 percent capacity or less. That’s the reason why,” she said.
In spite of the controversy over Forestville, not everyone who testified was dissatisfied with the school system.
“I am very glad to know the school’s (proposed) budget takes into account the parents’ involvement in student success as well as the teachers’ needs,” said parent Candida Hernandez, speaking with the aid of a translator. “I want to make sure our students have the tools and resources they need in order to be successful, and I think the schools’ budget takes this into account.”
Other topics brought up at the town hall included property tax rates, renters’ rights, the importance of art and music, the need for better transportation options for senior citizens, the Purple Line project, and the situation with the condominium market in the county.
Jonathan Hernandez, a senior at High Point High School, said he wanted to make sure the county’s renters were being treated fairly and equally.
“Landlords can be very unresponsive, meaning they are very inconsistent with the residents,” he said. “I believe the county should have a landlord-tenant office where a landlord can be accountable.”
Gerron Levi spoke about the condominium market in the county, which she said is depressed because the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) will not issue mortgages in condo communities with high delinquency rates.
“If FHA does not insure a mortgage, than it really closes off a whole class of buyers. What that means is people seeking to sell their condominium will have to lower the price. Condo prices are suppressed to such a low level in the county when compared to surrounding jurisdictions,” she said. “If you can find a way to solve this problem you can increase your tax revenues.”