An employee at Crossland High School in Temple Hills waits for documentation to distribute a Google Chromebook to a student on April 2. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
**FILE** An employee at Crossland High School in Temple Hills waits for documentation to distribute a Google Chromebook to a student on April 2. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

While Prince George’s County officials reviewed a proposed education spending plan Tuesday, a complaint challenges the school system shouldn’t impose summer school fees during the coronavirus pandemic.

The document filed Monday in Circuit Court disputes a previous position taken by several parents last year that the school system has a constitutional obligation to provide a free public education.

The new complaint claims this affects thousands of low-income students, especially when schools have been closed since March 16 and distance learning implemented April 14. Those students lack technology resources to achieve online learning, according to the document.

“I think the [coronavirus] crisis exemplifies why this policy is dangerous,” said Amjel Quereshi, co-director of the Howard University School of Law Civil and Human Rights Clinic. “Every year may not involve a [coronavirus], but every year students are affected by factors and decisions beyond their control that affect their ability to maintain an education. Whether or not they have a chance to make up for that shouldn’t be left to their income or their parent’s income.”

Quereshi and attorneys with the ACLU of Maryland and Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll of northwest D.C. are representing the plaintiffs.

The refiling of this complaint stems from the Maryland Board of Education’s decision to allow Prince George’s charge summer school fees of $125 last year.

One of the plaintiffs, Wanda Ford, said she can’t afford any fees as the guardian of her four grandchildren, whom she took in after her daughter died.

“If they need summer school so they can graduate, it’s not fair that they are held back if the parents can’t pay,” she said. “They should not have to pay to go to school.”

According to the school system website, details on summer programs are pending. Tuition waivers forms are available for credit recovery programs only and up to 50 percent could be relinquished for students in free and reduced meals program.

A representative from the school system didn’t respond Tuesday for comment.

Even if summer school fees are waived this year, Quereshi said they can be implemented next year, which not only hurts low-income students financially but also forces them to repeat the same grade and not graduate on time with their peers.

“The problem won’t go away,” he said.

Meanwhile, school system CEO Monica Goldson said 60,000 Chromebooks were distributed to students. The school system also committed to a $2 million investment toward the distance learning program that includes internet access for families with students eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

Goldson and other school officials summarized the education portion of the fiscal year 2021 budget during a virtual work session with the county council. The school board unanimously approved a $2.3 billion budget in February, but the council makes the final approval.

Usually a routine process during the budget cycle, the pandemic has presented a challenge for jurisdictions in the D.C. area.

County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said in a letter dated April 20 the operating budget could see a possible decrease of $134 million in revenues.

In terms of school system expenditures, at least $8 million less would come from the county.

Although the budget summary shows $1 million could be cut from special education, Chief Financial Officer Michael Herbstman said Tuesday more funding plans to be directed for that program.

Herbstman said the school system could be eligible for about $32 million from the federal Education Stabilization Fund through the CARES Act, the economic stimulus package approved by Congress to help states with budgetary problems due to the coronavirus. If approved, he said, the money could be spent on items from March 13 — the last day schools were open in Maryland — through some time next year.

He said the CARES Act also provides an additional $46 million for Maryland from a governors’ emergency education relief grant. How Gov. Larry Hogan would distribute the money for each of the state’s 24 school systems and the application process remains pending.

One perspective of hope remains with the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the major education plan state lawmakers approved this year.

The plan based on recommendations from the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education seeks to increase teacher salaries, expand early childhood education and provide more mental health resources. The group was nicknamed the Kirwan Commission after its chair, former University of Maryland system chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan.

Although lawmakers approved funding for this year and next, the coronavirus could alter future dollars on the program through 2030.

“I’m not giving up on the governor’s signature on Kirwan,” said Alvin Thornton, chair of the Prince George’s school board. “The fact that [the coronavirus] has revealed graphic inequities in our public school funding, that’s pretty unprecedented. I think that will roll over into [Hogan’s] approval.”

“Well, here’s hoping,” said County Council member Jolene Ivey (D-District 5) of Cheverly.

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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