County councilmembers question education budget items

county-councilUPPER MARLBORO – This year Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) is asking for a hefty investment from the county, and members of the county council want to know that investment will bring dividends.

The Prince George’s County Council’s Health, Education and Human Services (HEHS) Committee met with PGCPS Chief Executive Officer Kevin Maxwell and members of the budget department to go over line items in the school system’s $2 billion request.

While PGCPS is not asking for all $2 billion from the county, John Pfister and Raymond Brown, two leaders on the budget team, said the school system is asking for a large increase in funds over previous years.

“We asked, or we appropriated, for $698 million for this current year. The total request for (fiscal year) 18 is closer to $831 million,” Brown said.

In fiscal year 2016, PGCPS received $669 million and received $698 million for fiscal year 2017 (the current year). Now, the school system is seeking a nearly $133 million increase in funds from previous years.

Karen Toles, the chair of the HEHS committee, had several questions about the budget, including specifics about past requests. She wanted to know how past asks from the school system were received and whether the council had awarded the asked amount or something else.

“Did we give you more or less based on what you asked for last year,” she asked.

The answer was a resounding less. In fact, Brown said he believes the county gave PGCPS around $80 or $90 million less than what they asked for.

And this year there is extra pressure on the county to fill in the budget gaps left behind by an updated formula for state aid. Brown and Pfister said PGCPS expects to receive less state funding due to a drop in Free and Reduced Meal (FARM) program enrollees.

“Our FARMs enrollment decreased by 823 students, so that was one of the drivers. The other driver was the net taxable income and guaranteed tax base amounts were a lot less than we anticipated,” Brown said, explaining that the total amount of state funding for all school systems only increased by $80 million this year.

However, the county is only required to fund the school system to a certain amount, the maintenance of effort (MOE), and that requirement only increased by $9.7 million this year. Still, the county has a history of funding the school system well beyond the MOE.

With an investment like that on the table, Toles and other members wanted to know what that increased money is going to.

Maxwell said the increase will go toward a number of projects including the expansion of pre-kindergarten, language immersion and the International School, as well as benefits for teachers and employees, including incentives for bus drivers.

“The largest one is under high performing work force. We’ve been trying to respond to the retention and recruitment of high quality teachers. And so, that is over a $90 million request right there to give everyone a step (raise),” Maxwell said.

Beyond overall funding, many council members had questions about specific parts of the proposed budget, which has yet to be approved by the board of education.

Questions arose about hiring practices for nurses, teacher retention, especially in Title I and “difficult” schools, the loss of Head Start federal grant funds, and equal educational opportunities for all students in Prince George’s County.

Councilwoman Andrea Harrison took a special interest in the new software requests, asking if resources are being pooled for students who are not in specialty programs or in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

“For me, that’s very important,” she said. “While I appreciate the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, I also understand that not every child is going to go to college, but they still need to be prepared for life.”

Maxwell said the school system is looking into updated resources for vocational and non-traditional schools. He expects a recommendation for next year’s budget after an analysis into the current model.

Councilwoman Deni Taveras, as well as other members, asked about busses and the difficulty caused by delays and absenteeism, and what can be done to improve the situation.

Maxwell and Wesley Watts, chief operating officer, said PGCPS is working on an incentive program for bus drivers to improve attendance, as well as working on improving working conditions and growing a list of substitute drivers.

Todd Turner, councilman for District 4, inquired about construction at Tulip Grove Elementary, Advanced Placement Test fees and the growing demographics of students – specifically how the school system is handling refugees.

The board of education will take up the budget on Feb. 23 before it is send to County Executive Rushern Baker, III for consideration in his countywide budget proposal. From there, the county council will dig deeper into the budget before making a final recommendation.

Via Prince George’s County sentinelprincegeorges1

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