LANDOVER — Prince George’s County Advocates For Better Schools (PGCABS) held a public question and answer session to discuss the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) fiscal year 2020 budget at Ernest Just Middle School on Jan. 16.
Although the Board of Education will be holding three information sessions in the coming weeks, PGCABS held this meeting so that parents could receive direct answers from Chief Financial Officer Mike Herbstman and Chief of Staff Christian Rhodes.
“Public hearings for the Board of Education are an opportunity for people to learn about a particular issue,” said PGCABS member Lori Morrow. “The Board of Education doesn’t answer questions at the meeting. Here, people can get answers in detail.”
The proposed budget, a process that began during the summer, will go into effect at the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1 after it is approved.
“This was my first PGCABS meeting,” said Jasmine Oke from Landover. “My daughter is in early elementary school, so I’m trying to to get some information an to be informed on what’s going on in the district and money is and important thing to be informed about…this was very helpful.”
Interim CEO Monica Goldson has made a series of improvements to the budget creation process this year, Herbstman said.
These included making an effort to justify every expense in the budget which led to expense reductions and emphasizing key areas for improved efficiency which are moving unnecessary funds from the central office back to the schools and increasing transparency and accountability.
Overall, the budget consists of a total of $2.10 billion which is a 2.8 percent increase, a total of $5.69 million more than the FY 2019 budget.
According to Herbstman, some of the things that drove the budget for this year were increased enrollment in PGCPS, student and staff safety, transfer of funds from the central office to schools, employee restoration, class size reduction in K-3 classrooms and retaining employees.
Most of the budget, 83 percent, is going to go towards salaries and employee benefits.
“So right now about 90 percent of our employees come back and are retained each year, but as we move forward we know that people are doing this because they care about this community and their schools and their students so we need to make sure that they are compensated fairly so they can stay here long term,” Herbstman said.
After Herbstman’s presentation, Michelle Scott worried that special education was not touched on during the meeting and she wanted to know what the budget would be like for the program and how funds would be allocated towards it.
Another parent spoke from experience on the same issue wherein her child’s school the funding for special education was increased, but the number of services were reduced. She and Scott echoed the same thought that there should be more speech and language pathologists in schools.
“My son, thank god, graduated, and that was the person I was really speaking on behalf of from the special needs aspect,” Scott said. “They really, I feel, still get neglected. I think that there needs to be a lot more management and oversight of what they’re doing not only on a daily basis but with the money. There are many services they don’t get including the speech and language pathologists, and I don’t think that’s fair or appropriate.”
Parents were also concerned about the expansion of language immersion schools to not only expand into more middle and high school immersion programs but also to include basic resources such as more library books in their language and Chromebooks to do their work online.
Rhodes said that although expansion into fourth and fifth grades for the Spanish immersion program is included in the budget, PGCPS does not yet have the money yet to think about expanding to middle and high school immersion.
“What I will say, and I harp on this about programs, our history in this county has been creating a program to support families staying in the county, but we don’t always think about the budgetary implications of creating a program,” Rhodes said.
Finally, a discussion was held around the funding for transportation. The parents wanted to know how much money was going towards hiring new bus drivers to deal with the number of late buses every day.
Rhodes explained that PGCPS had an ongoing problem with retaining bus drivers and trying to come up with a better model for that system means creating incentives for drivers showing up or contracting out drivers from other organizations to prevent driver turnover.
On the topic of transportation, a parent whose child attends a charter school asked why PGCPS does not fund transportation for charter schools. However, according to Rhodes, the school system gives money to charter school for transportation, but the school is allowed to allocate the funds for whatever they want to use them for, such as Turning Point Academy which actually does fund transportation.
The Board of Education will hold three public work sessions over the next few weeks with the work sessions taking place at 5 p.m. and the public hearings at 7 p.m