LANDOVER – Recent scandals in the public school system have spurred both lawmakers and county residents to push for drastic changes in the school board.
At the Prince George’s County House Delegation public hearing Monday, residents had the opportunity to comment on the county and bi-county bills pre-filed for the General Assembly’s 2017 legislative session.
By far, the most talked-about bill was PG 402-17, which is being touted as a repeal of 2013’s HB 1107 that gave broad power over the school system to the county executive. PG 402-17 attempts to curb the executive’s power by, among other things, returning the county to an all-elected school board and removing the county executive’s power to appoint the board’s chair and vice-chair. It was sponsored by Del. Carolyn J. B. Howard (D-24 ) and Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-26).
Muse said he was against HB1107 from the beginning and having the chief executive officer (CEO) of the school system accountable only to the county executive “was a mistake” and “destroyed all levels of checks and balances.”
He said the change did not yield the improvements in the school system that were promised.
“While we are boasting that graduation rates are up, our SAT scores are still down, which suggests to me that we are graduating students to meet a quota rather than taking into account if they are ready to graduate. We have yet to identify the weak areas,” Muse said.
Howard said her objections to HB1107 have to do with the fact it was used by County Executive Rushern Baker, III to justify a property tax rate increase last year.
“I want to make clear that it is not my intent to get rid of the superintendent,” Howard said. “My major problem with what we passed is the authority of the county executive to raise the taxes.”
County residents from all walks of life came out to speak about the bill, with 19 in favor of it. Many said the school system’s loss of Head Start funding would not have occurred with an all-elected board more accountable to the people.
“The current board is even more dysfunctional than the previous all-elected board,” said David Cahn, co-chair of the advocacy group Citizens for an Elected Board. “Baker’s appointed leaders, for example, hide important matters from the elected members. This caused the loss of more than $6 million in grant funds for the Head Start program and permitted the abuse of our youngest and most vulnerable children for many additional months.”
He, and several other residents, argued the current bill governing the Prince George’s County Board of Education creates a civil rights issue by disenfranchising citizens.
“Broadly speaking, as unions we have at our core the mission of representation,” said Carlos Jimenez, executive director of the AFL-CIO Washington Metropolitan Council. “We believe that for a system to work, it requires the voices and participation of critical stakeholders to be present. For that reason, we support this proposed legislation.”
Another resident, June White Dillard with the Association of Supervisory & Administrative School Personnel (ASASP), a school employees’ union, said the current situation with a mix of elected and appointed members creates a “divisive board.”
“The school board of education needs to function properly by electing its own chair and its own vice-chair annually,” she said. “We strongly support the repeal as defined in 402-17.”
Peggy Higgins, a former board of education member and current social worker, came with examples of board actions that she believed demonstrate the appointed board members are not acting with the best interests of the children in mind.
“Instead of approving or modifying the superintendent’s recommendations by a simple majority vote, the current law says it takes a two-thirds vote of the board to override the CEO’s decision, not recommendation,” Higgins said. “How does the current structure help kids? It doesn’t. The last budget cycle, with opposition from the CEO, the motion to add additional reading specialists at nine of the 20 lowest-performing elementary schools whose students are vulnerable to not graduating, failed to receive the two-thirds vote.”
However, Verjeana Jacobs, a former board of education member who lost her re-election bid in the June primary, said the issue isn’t about elected or appointed members, but lack of communication within the system, which she said stems from a lack of accountability.
“I don’t want us to get distracted by elected versus appointed. The reality here is that this conversation is about accountability. What I want to stress is what is going on in the school district right now is a dynasty. We have one person who can do anything that he wants to do,” Jacobs said. “There is this concerted effort, a deliberate and intentional effort, to not communicate what is going on.”
While Jacobs does not think the school board is dysfunctional, she did agree with Higgins that the appointment system has influenced the behavior of some members.
“The board itself, the elected and appointed members, get along quite well. So this myth that there is dysfunction among the board members is inaccurate because we are about the work. Those of us who are about the work are about the work,” she said. “I’ve seen board members agree on the issues but do not feel comfortable voting their conscience. It’s a fact.”
The Baker Administration remains supportive of the current system and opposes 402-17. Kenny Battle spoke on behalf of the administration to ask for more time with the mixed board.
“We believe that the current system needs an opportunity to work. It’s been in place for three and a half years. This will be the fourth school year. We believe the current system has provided some stability at the top,” Battle said.
He also took issue with the claim the appointed members simply rubber stamp what Baker-appointed school administrators ask for.
“We still believe that despite the comments that the appointed members are not accountable to anyone but the county exec, we think it’s very clear to those who have been part of the school board’s process that it’s very open,” Battle said. “Believe me, the county executive is not making all the decisions for the school board.”
This bill will continue to spark debate once the General Assembly goes back into session in January 2017.