County council takes no position, board of education opposes 1107 repeal

Annapolis-State-House-MD-flagUPPER MARLBORO – Both the board of education and the county council weighed in on the state’s efforts to change the structure of the Prince George’s County Board of Education yet again.

The Prince George’s House Delegation is considering a bill, PG 402-17, which would repeal major provisions of HB 1107, passed by the General Assembly in 2013. The repeal would return the body to an all-elected board and create provisions for special elections – at county expense – to fill vacant board seats. Under current law, the county executive has the power to fill vacant board seats, as well as to appoint four members to the board and choose the chief executive officer (CEO) for Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS). The repeal would give the board the power to choose who heads PGCPS.

During a Feb. 2 work session, the board of education voted 9-2 to accept the board’s policy committee’s recommendation to oppose the bill. Edward Burroughs, III and Raheela Ahmed, both elected members, cast the no votes.

“The power really lies in the hands of three individuals, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair to those individuals, and it’s not fair for our system to have this form of governance that is so determined by three individuals,” Ahmed said of the current structure. “If one of the key players changes then that can cause some imbalance in our system, and that’s not fair for our students and our schools either.”

Demetria Tobias, associate general counsel for PGCPS, said the policy committee recommended the board oppose the bill for several reasons. She said it is premature, because HB 1107 already included provisions for reporting and evaluating progress under the new governance structure to allow the General Assembly to revisit the changes in the 2018 session. Tobias also said the impression was that the bill was partially in response to the issues the school system has faced over the last year, such as the loss of Head Start funding and child abuse allegations. She said those problems are not symptoms of the school system’s governance structure being broken.

“It is unfair, in our view, and inaccurate, to blame those issues, those crises, those problems that we are actually working on, on the new governance structure,” Tobias said.

Burroughs disagreed. He said the board’s inability to hold school leadership accountable for failing to share information about the warnings sent by the federal government about the Head Start program resulted in the loss of the funds.

“If I have the ability to select my own leadership, those individuals would have been held accountable by this board. The county executive refused to hold the leadership accountable, and as a result we lost the funds,” Burroughs said.

He also said the fact that the board of education needs a two-thirds vote to override the CEO’s decisions was a cause of rising class sizes and administrative costs within PGCPS.

His board colleague Beverly Anderson also criticized that two-thirds vote policy, but said the structure of the governing body isn’t as important as the people that make it up.

“I think 1107, almost any structure is okay, but it’s the attitudes and the implementations and the transparency of workers and what my peer Ms. (Lupi) Grady said – it’s bringing our best to the situation,” Anderson said. “And I think that our best has not yet been brought, but this is not to speak against 1107 but rather to speak to the need to refine 1107.”

Board member Sonya Williams agreed that refining HB 1107 would be preferable, and said the board should take a more active role in doing that work because they understand best the needs of the school system.

“I think in order for us to be proactive, I think we need to take the time between now and next session to determine what we want the House Bill 1107 to look like,” she said. “No one sitting outside this boardroom knows the details we review, approve, conversate on. So, no one can tell us what this House bill should look like. No one can tell us what the governance of this board should look like.”

On Jan. 31, in a 6-1 vote, the county council approved a letter to the House and Senate delegations stating the council takes no position on 402-17. Councilwoman Andrea Harrison was the dissenter, and Councilmembers Mel Franklin and Karen Toles were absent. The council arrived at its position while meeting as the Rules and General Assembly committee last week, but members held individual, and strong, opinions in spite of the consensus.

A major point of dissent was the statement in the draft letter that the board’s composition prior to the enacting of HB 1107 was problematic.

“I disagree with the statement that there were ‘inherent problems with the former board’s composition.’ I don’t know where that’s coming from. That’s how the county board of education looked for years and years and years before it was temporarily replaced with a nine-member appointed board,” said Councilwoman Mary Lehman.

Lehman said the issue is with the board’s effectiveness, not its composition. Her colleague Deni Taveras disagreed, saying the prior system did not require the board members to have high-level degrees in the educational field.

“I do recall that there were a lot of problems with the fact that we were basically the laughing stock of the region in terms of the qualifications of the board that was in place,” she said. “I think that when we’re dealing with $2 billion worth of money, I think that people should expect some level of qualification, that they’re experts in their field.”

Harrison disagreed and said it was “snobbish, uppity, and judgmental” to say someone is not qualified for the board of education because of a lack of a degree. Lehman said more concerning to her was the fact that some board members did not have children in the school system they were overseeing.

In the end, the council agreed to some minor wording changes in their letter to the state. The letter as amended says, “We believe that a complete repeal would require some further discussion on the type of replacement or alternative. Simply returning the governance structure back to how it was prior to HB 1107 may not likely be the best approach to furthering systemic edification in (an) effort to increase student achievement.”

The letter also indicates the council supports another bill before the delegation, PG 416-17, which would create a task force to study school system governance. The council, according to its letter, feels that “any further changes to the board will require some type of intensive study of best practices.”

The council did request the timeline for the task force’s report be moved up, from Oct. 1, 2018 to Dec. 31, 2017, to coincide with the reporting required under HB 1107.

Although the letter has been sent, the council’s discussions with the delegation will continue. Council Chair Derrick Davis urged his colleagues to be precise in those conversations.

“When you talk to your friends on the Maryland state legislature, that you separate the things that we agreed upon from the things that you may feel as a specific and individual member,” he told his colleagues.

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