UPPER MARLBORO — If the board of education meeting last night proved anything, it’s that advocacy and numbers can make an impact in any governmental body’s decision.
The Prince George’s County Board of Education voted in a 10 to one decision last night to postpone their vote on boundary changes for one year after a packed board room with nearly 80 registered speakers voiced their concerns over school consolidations and boundary changes during the scheduled board hearing.
Verjeana Jacobs, who represents District 5, made the motion to postpone the vote and said that, while she does not personally represent any of the schools affected by the proposals, she was strongly moved to take a stand by parent testimony.
“The oath that we took was to uphold what’s right for every district in this county and so, while I still want to hear from everybody, I really would like to put a motion on the floor that we postpone this decision until this time next year,” Jacobs said at the meeting.
Board member Edward Burroughs III seconded the motion and the board approved the motion, despite the fact that the meeting was supposed to be a public hearing only with no official board business. The lone dissenting vote, Board Chair Segun Eubanks, said he felt the board should wait to vote until the board meeting on Thursday, when the school administration and legal team are present. He said he felt it was inappropriate to take the vote at the time.
“Each of us, regardless of what we will believe or how we vote, you can either believe that or not, but each of us are here because we are deeply committed to the children and we’re going to continue to move forward as best we can,” Eubanks said. “This item was scheduled for a regular debate, as is our custom so that we can actually debate motions and prepare for them on the floor.”
Although Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Kevin Maxwell and his administration proposed the changes, only two administrators were seated at the dais during the meeting. Sherrie Johnson, a spokesperson for PGCPS, said Maxwell was at another previously scheduled event and did not have a work or legal obligation to be at the meeting, since it was a board hearing only.
Despite the motion to delay the vote on boundary changes, Maxwell, according to Maryland law, has the sole authority to make school consolidations, which in effect are closures. Jacobs suggested the board may be able to override the CEO’s decision with a two-thirds vote and said the board will consult their legal advisor on how to proceed next.
At the meeting, residents from across the county came out in droves to protest the boundary changes proposed by Maxwell and the proposed closure of Forestville High and Skyline Elementary schools. While the conversation was dominated by parents unhappy with the proposals, parents and community members also complained of a lack of communication between the school system and the community, citing that parents had not been informed that their schools were closing or that there was a board hearing until the last couple of weeks.
80 speakers registered to speak at the meeting, which was completely packed to capacity with residents pouring into the hallway.
As the role was called for the vote, Burroughs and Jacobs both celebrated the majority as Burroughs arose from his seat with his hands in the air. Residents in the room also came to their feet in excitement and loudly cheered the decision.
During the meeting numerous speakers had requested the board delay the vote on the changes until a proper conversation with the community is held. Parents and teachers alike asked the school system to open up the process so that the decision is made not by a group of officials, but by the community in general.
C. Anthony Muse, who is the state senator for District 26, spoke at the meeting and said he had numerous concerns about the proposed changes.
“Let me first start off by saying I wish that we had more community input prior to these decisions being made and letters and ‘robo’ calls being sent out to the parents and the community,” he said.
That sentiment was echoed continuously throughout the meeting.
Monique Walker has a child at Potomac Landing Elementary School, which is one of the schools affected by the proposed boundary changes. The school currently feeds into Accokeek Academy, but after boundary changes would feed into Gwynn Park Middle. Walker, who is concerned about the quality difference between the two schools, said that while she does have concerns about the changes, she is more concerned about how the process came about.
“There was no warning, but what was most disturbing is that it seems to have been a very covert process that we were not involved in,” Walker said. “I’m very concerned about that and what the basis of that is.”
LaDonna Dingle, a parent of a child at Skyline Elementary, said she is deeply concerned about how the school system plans to integrate the autistic children at Skyline into other neighborhood schools after Skyline is closed. Although the school system has said some supports will be provided to students, she said, parents have not been given adequate information about the transition.
“The students, parents and staff have not been thoroughly or adequately informed at this time of how these services will be provided in our neighborhood schools,” she said.
Dingle also complained that the school system will not meet with parents until March, and said the families should have had an opportunity to hear from the department of special education before any decisions were made.
“This meeting should have been held prior to the public hearing and prior to the announcement of the school closure,” Dingle said.
Many parents expressed similar concerns over the closure of Skyline and expressed fear over how their students with disabilities will be treated and aided at other schools.
Aaron Barnes has a son at Skyline who he said has never been in the general education environment because it “has not been deemed appropriate.” Barnes said his son went to two different schools that did not work out for him before he started at Skyline.
At his previous schools Barnes’s son became “violent, a biter (and) he was not learning anything.” At Skyline, he said his son has thrived, and now he doesn’t know what will happen.
“This school is too important to our kids with autism, who are the most vulnerable students in this county and it’s going to be detrimental if you close this school down. I’m telling you,” Barnes said. “My biggest fear is that my son is going to regress.”
Walker said, overall, the complaints and concerns from families are all about their children’s safety. For Walker personally, she doesn’t want her child’s boundary school to change from Accokeek Academy to Gwynn Park because of the logistics.
“It is 13 miles away where our children have to ride on the bus. To get on the bus, they have to be at the bus stop at 6:30 in the morning, which is unreal. And, during the winter time, it’s not light outside,” she said.
Safety is also a concern for many students and parents with the suggested closure of Forestville and moving of students to Suitland High School, which many claimed has had a long-standing rivalry with Forestville.
Kenneth Smith, a parent of a student at Forestville, said the school board doesn’t hear what is going on with the students, especially in regards to fighting and other struggles.
“You don’t hear when the kids say ‘I want them to come over here, it’s going to be a fight.’ Each and every one of you that’s involved in this have an option to make this stop before it happens,” Smith said.
By moving the kids from one school to the other, he said, arguments will arise, and Bobby Fernandores, another parent of a Forestville student, agreed.
Fernandores said his concern isn’t just for his daughter’s academics but for her safety.
“I’m thinking about the fights that may occur between Forestville and Suitland,” he said. “I don’t know about Suitland now, but I know that if you merge these two schools together it’s going to create a turf war, you know, kids are going to be fighting one another.”
Gail Bingham, a parent of a Suitland student, said her son has heard “talk already” about fighting that would occur if the schools were merged. Bingham said, while her child would welcome any students, there are kids who would not welcome new students.
“We’re setting the kids up for failure,” she said.
Kimberly William, who has a student at Skyline, felt the same way about moving special needs children into the general education population. She said her understanding of Skyline is it functions as a school for children that cannot learn in a typical environment and said she cannot understand why PGCPS would close it.
“This is a recipe for a disaster and if one child fails because of this, it is on your shoulders,” she said to the board.
The board was supposed to take up the topic again on Thursday, Feb. 25, during their regularly scheduled meeting, but the school system sent out a text message on Wednesday stating the item had been taken off the agenda. Eubanks told the gathered crowd to return to keep their voices heard, and many parents have already guaranteed they will attend future meetings to force the board to “do the right thing.”