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Prince George's Co. New Budget: So Not Money

I'm a big fan of Prince George's County Superintendent Bill Hite. And I'm not the only one. Just the other week, our earnest Secretary of Education and NEA honcho Dennis Van Roekel visited PGC in nearby Maryland to fawn over some of Hite's turnaround efforts. So it brings me no joy to note that PGC's just-issued budget is the latest poster child for fiscal management that just doesn't get it.

The Washington Post reported this morning, in a story headlined "Pr. George's schools' dismal fiscal 2012 plan," that PGC is proposing a $1.69 billion budget. That figure actually represents a $49 million increase from 2010-11. How's THAT for dismal news? I can think of more than a few friends and colleagues who'd love to work in an organization where a projected three percent increase is deemed "dismal."

Of course, to get there (especially with $103 million in federal stimulus money going away), PGC is requesting $139 million in additional funds from already-strapped Maryland and an additional $22 million from a county that has been busy slashing funds for libraries, public safety, and the rest. The district's justification for keeping its maw wide open? PGC's CFO Matthew Stanski offered the classic "shut up and give me the money" non-justification, saying, "We definitely understand the state's fiscal challenges, but we want to ask for what we need to operate the district."

The proposal freezes employee pay, but abandons the furloughs used in 2009-10, meaning that salary expenses will increase by about $24 million. Here's an idea: how about continuing to furlough administrative and other non-school personnel?

Yet, even while projecting a $49 million pay bump, PGC's budget zeroes out the $800,000 for intramural middle school athletics and ends after-school baseball, softball, basketball, and soccer in the middle grades. Seriously? Nah, probably not. This is widely known as the "close the Washington Monument strategy." The district leadership probably figures that they can mobilize parents to protest those cuts, strengthening their hand with the county and state and then allowing them to "save" this inexpensive line item downstream.

Meanwhile, at least as depicted by the WaPo's Michael Birnbaum, there's no evidence that the district is planning to find savings in employee benefits by rethinking staffing, by substituting new technologies, or by optimizing operations. Ah, well.

This follows, by one day, the equally disheartening budget news in neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, which asked for a $60 million increase in 2012. This request, as part of a proposed $2.16 billion budget, came as the county is struggling with a $300 million shortfall and just after the council made $30 million in midyear spending cuts to various county services. Yet, as in PGC, Superintendent Jerry Weast--for whom I also have great respect and admiration--kvetched, "I'm down to bare bones here. I'm about to cry on the inside on this thing."

This refusal to grapple with fiscal realities is shortsighted, forfeiting an opportunity to make a virtue of necessity and embrace long-overdue structural changes. It's also politically obtuse. There's a tone-deafness that plays poorly. It offers rich targets for smart conservatives like Chris Christie, and is even starting to draw the ire of impassioned progressives like incoming California governor Jerry Brown and L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The odds are that districts like PGC and Montgomery won't get all the dollars they want, will pass on the chance to pursue truly transformative changes to staffing and district structure, and will look like self-serving, tin cup-rattling claimants in the bargain. None of that's particularly good for kids or schools, especially when it's likely that districts are looking ahead to several more years of tough budgets.

In states and communities across the land, public officials are having to make painful decisions. After decades of generous funding, which has rarely been accompanied by much in evident results, educators would do well to show that they get it and to uncomplainingly offer to shoulder their share. This would be an auspicious time for educational leaders to talk about delivering more rather than demanding more.

Oh, and one other thing worth noting. A salary "freeze" in K-12 is not the same thing as a salary freeze in most fields. Typically, announcing a salary freeze means that everyone will earn what they earned the year before. Not so in schooling, where step-and-lane raises are in effect regardless of any freeze. So, all teachers who advance a step or a lane--due to another year's seniority or additional postsecondary credit--still receive those raises. The "freeze" simply means that teachers will not receive an additional across-the-board raise.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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