Prince George’s County Council members thought they were hosting an informational town hall meeting on the government’s budget process. Instead, they got an earful from students, teachers and parents over plans to cut busing for specialty education programs such as arts and language immersion.
About 70 people attended the meeting at Prince George’s Community College in Largo last night, with a large contingent from Suitland High School’s Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, many dressed in purple in solidarity to their cause.
Parents and students said a plan to cut transportation for specialty programs would threaten the programs’ existence by forcing students to drop out.
“The visual and performing arts made me the person I am today,” Tiara Devonda Byrd, a senior at Suitland High School, told the council.
Senior Jack Johnson said the performing arts programs are “like a family and a safe haven” in one. “You don’t take away someone’s family. That’s crazy.”
About 7,500 students are bused each day throughout the county to the programs, which include Visual and Performing Arts, Science and Technology, Montessori and French Immersion. It costs an average $1,961 to transport these students each year. Facing an $85 million decrease in state educational funding, the proposal to abolish the busing would save about $7.8 million a year.
But Maria L. Saldaña, the schools system’s high school coordinator for Visual and Performing Arts, said that savings figure was misleading. She said that taking away the transportation would lead to many parents not being able to afford to drive their children to the specialty programs.
With a loss of participants, there would be a loss in college scholarships, said Saldaña. The Visual and Performing Arts alone netted $7.3 million in scholarships last year, she told the council.
“The data shows these programs work,” she said. “Forty six percent of the students in the Visual and Performing Arts made the honor roll, and that’s not speaking for Science and Technology.”
County Council Chairwoman Ingrid M. Turner (D-Dist.4) of Bowie at first asked the audience not to applaud the speakers, but her instructions were soon ignored, and eventually council members, themselves, were clapping as the students spoke, including for Suitland senior Ashton Tate Johnson.
“I’ve received $38,000 in scholarships,” said Johnson to the council. “If there was no transportation, my little sister wouldn’t have the same chance to get those scholarships.”
Suitland parent Kevin Stansfield was blunter. “This is ludicrous. We should be here asking you for more money, instead of begging you not to cut.”
Council members made no promises to the audience regarding the transportation cuts, in part because they are not yet directly involved in voting on the school budget. But Turner and council members Obie Patterson (D-Dist. 8) of Fort Washington, Leslie E. Johnson (D-Dist. 6) of Mitchellville and Will Campos (D-Dist. 2) of Hyattsville said the Suitland community had made its points heard.
“When people come out to us and show to us the importance of what they are doing, we notice,” Campos said.
The office of Prince George’s County School Superintendent William R. Hite told Patch that a plan to keep the busing, but not for free, is being developed. Hite’s proposal would mean that students would ride for a fee, based upon income and how many children there were in a family taking part in the specialty programs. He said that could happen in about a month.
Saldaña said after the meeting that a fee program would act as a barrier keeping some students from participating in the specialty programs. If families have to choose between paying bills and paying for transportation, the bills might get chosen first, said Saldaña. She said there should be a permanent policy put in place keeping the transportation for specialty programs from ever being eliminated.
“It’s dangerous to create a system of haves and have nots, especially in Prince George’s County,” she said.
The $1.6 billion fiscal 2012 budget was approved last week by the Board of Education, and now reflects a 2 percent decrease over the current fiscal year and factors in some $155 million in cuts.
**Editor's Note** This story incorrectly spelled the name of Ashton Tate Johnson.