Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Skeptical Council Debates Proposed Prince George’s Tax Increases

Prince George's County Council. All images by County.
A funny thing happened last week at a town hall meeting in Capitol Heights: the Prince George’s County Council actually engaged in a meaningful and full-throated debate with citizens and the executive branch of county government over the proposed FY2016 public schools budget.

The council is weighing county executive Rushern Baker’s proposal to raise a variety of local taxes, including a 16% increase in real property taxes, to pay for the additional $133 million that the school district is seeking in next year’s budget. The council must approve a final budget no later than May 31 for the fiscal year beginning June 1.

Public hearings before the county council are often like choreographed stage plays, where council members listen in polite silence to their constituents for up to three minutes each and then either immediately adjourn or, with little to no debate or discussion, proceed to do what they had already made up their minds to do. (Tuesday's budget hearing in Upper Marlboro generally followed that mold.)

But council members went somewhat “off-script” at last week’s town hall, which was held at Central High School on April 21. Instead of dispassionately receiving public comments, council members became integrally and vocally involved in the debate. They listened intently and actively, often amplifying the concerns expressed by the citizens. And sometimes, they openly challenged the county executive and the CEO of the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), Dr. Kevin Maxwell.

Baker and Maxwell have been holding their own series of meetings with the public, but those have been much more stilted affairs by design. Typically, the county executive and his staff, the schools CEO, and the school board chair, Dr. Segun Eubanks, give a presentation about why they are proposing the tax increases and the expanded schools budget. Then, they proceed to answer selected written questions that the audience members have put on index cards. However, the county executive’s staff handpicks the questions that are actually presented to the panel for a response.

Dr. Eubanks, Dr. Maxwell, and County Executive Baker
Baker, Maxwell, and Eubanks were also present last week at the council’s town hall, and they gave essentially the same presentation as they typically do at their own forums. This time, though, the citizens’ questions were coming from the floor, uncensored, and the council members were present to hear and react to them in real time.

If you have time and want to get the best overview of all sides of this debate, you should really watch the whole three-hour town hall. For those that can’t or don’t wish to do that, here are a few of the highlights:

Rushern Baker falsely believes the only thing holding down Prince George’s home values is the county’s low-performing schools. The county executive seems to have convinced himself that he has solved all of the county’s myriad of problems and that the only thing left for him to do is transform the school system: “The reason the value of the homes in Prince George’s County aren’t the same as surrounding jurisdictions is not because of crime, because crime is down; it’s not because of economic development, because we have economic development coming; it’s not because of healthcare. It’s because of our schools,” Baker exclaimed. The quality of the schools “determines the value of the homes. That’s the difference between us and the other areas…That’s the only thing we haven’t done.”

Baker’s claim, of course, is more political spin than substance or truth. School quality certainly has an impact on home values, but it is not the sole factor. Nor is the relatively low quality of Prince George’s schools the sole factor that distinguishes Prince George’s County from its neighbors.

As the Washington Post reported earlier this year, the county’s racial demographics significantly reduce home values irrespective of any other factor. More importantly, it is well known that the county’s long history of corruption and its overly politicized development review process significantly hinder major employers and high-quality developers from doing business in the county. And let’s not forget the devastating economic consequences of the county’s more than 30 years of neglect of its transit-rich inner-Beltway gateway communities. These are all real issues that the county executive must face honestly—and none of them have anything to do with schools.

Lehman chastises Baker for rushing this proposal through and not seeking to build public support for it. In one of the more heated exchanges of the evening, councilwoman Mary Lehman (District 1) pointedly criticized the county executive for his take-it-or-leave-it approach in seeking to push these hefty tax increases through: “This cannot be presented as an all-or-nothing. We should’ve had this conversation a year ago, and Mr. Baker could’ve built public support for [this budget]. And he chose not to.”

Baker & Lehman square off in a tense exchange.
Toles and Lehman push back on Baker’s comparison of Prince George’s to its wealthier neighbors. One of the county executive’s central talking points for why the county needs higher taxes to fund schools is that counties like Montgomery pay more for their school systems, including paying higher salaries for teachers. But council members Karen Toles (District 7) and Mary Lehman (District 1) countered that argument with the reality that Prince George’s is simply not as wealthy as its neighbors.

“In other counties…they have a higher commercial tax base, so they have more money coming into their coffers, so they are able to invest more money,” Toles said. In spite of that wealth disparity, Toles rightly noted that Prince George’s already pays a similar percentage of its local taxes into education, and that Prince George’s gets more state aid than Montgomery does to make up for the wealth disparity.

Lehman made the point more plainly to Baker: “When you compare us to Anne Arundel and Howard, you do us a huge disservice…I think it is disingenuous to compare…this county to our much wealthier neighbors…We don’t have a money tree in this county.”

Councilman Turner
Turner urges caution, noting that the proposed increase to the school system budget will be virtually irreversible in future years. Councilman Todd Turner (District 4) urged his colleagues to consider the future ramifications of making such a huge increase in the school system’s operating budget. Under a Maryland state law known as “maintenance of effort,” counties are generally prohibited from reducing the amount of their local portion of school funding. Therefore, if the county accepts the county executive’s tax increase proposal this year, it will have to continue funding schools at that level in subsequent years—even if CEO Maxwell’s strategic plan doesn’t end up bringing the school system from near the bottom into the top 10, as he predicts.

Councilwoman Taveras
Taveras suggests postponing any increases in the school budget until an independent performance audit is completed. Councilwoman Deni Taveras (District 2) pointed out that the county spends 64% of its local revenues on the public school system and that it is important to ensure that PGCPS is spending that money in the wisest and most effective way possible. She further declared that “this budget is not going to move” until the county council reaches an agreement with the school system as to how and when a performance audit will be completed.

Toles expresses disbelief that a funding increase will result in better schools. Councilwoman Karen Toles (District 7) asked CEO Maxwell point blank whether he could guarantee that the $133 million increase that he is proposing as part of his strategic plan will in fact raise PGCPS’s ranking “from the bottom to the top.” CEO Maxwell said he could, and noted that he had already started turning the school system around by increasing graduation rates, improving promotion rates, and growing enrollment.

Councilwoman Toles
Unpersuaded, Toles shot back, “I don’t believe you.” She noted that Baltimore City pays the second-highest amount per pupil in school expenditures, but nevertheless remains at the bottom of the heap in terms of performance. Additionally, Toles cited Maxwell’s successes during the previous academic year as evidence that the school system can make improvements without huge tax increases.

Toles’s and Tavares’s points actually get to the crux of the issue, which is that there is no necessary correlation between more money and better schools. As I outlined in an earlier article, there are other large school systems with economies comparable to Prince George’s, such as Virginia Beach, that are funded at much lower levels, but that nevertheless outperform Prince George’s, even controlling for race. The real question is whether PGCPS is wisely using the money it has.

* * *

The council members’ insightful commentary and thoughtful public engagement and debate on the issues surrounding the proposed FY2016 public schools budget came as a welcome surprise to many Prince Georgians. The county could use a great deal more of these kinds of debates.


  1. Educator: It's not always about money (pay)! How many of you work for someONE/Company who you would not leave for a pay increase? More money does NOT equate "peace of mind", problem solved! There are TWO main factors that should be at the top of the list with school budgets, Students and TEACHERS!!! Supply and Demand! That's where the money should be and the "VILLAGE" should stand behind us and SUPPORT US!!