Scandals mar the journey of a hometown boy made good

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Kevin Maxwell, who became chief executive of Prince George’s County Public Schools in 2013, has announced he will step down. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Kevin Maxwell arrived in Prince George’s County in 2013 as a hometown boy made good, the newest leader of the struggling Maryland school system where he had grown up and started his career. He had stellar credentials, deep ties, wide support.

“He is truly one of our shining sons,” County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said as he welcomed Maxwell.

Five years later, the sense of promise is gone, and Maxwell is leaving the state’s second-largest school system marred by scandal, three years before his second contract as chief executive ends.

He has come under fire for large pay raises to aides, inflated graduation rates, the loss of a multimillion-dollar Head Start grant and a sex abuse case that raised concerns about oversight.

But as Maxwell departs, bruised by controversy, the question remains: Was it Maxwell, or was it something about the school system he inherited, which had churned through seven superintendents in the 14 years before he arrived?

“Prince George’s recent history is as an in­cred­ibly difficult school district to lead,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a D.C. think tank. “There are obvious political tensions, there are academic performance issues, there are management challenges.”

Maxwell’s tenure, he said, stands out nationally as “exceptionally messy.” Other big districts face similar issues, he said, but they usually don’t publicly erupt one after another.

By the time he started as chief executive in Prince George’s, Maxwell had been an educator for 35 years in the Washington suburbs. His personal story resonated: He grew up in the Largo area, the son of a single mother, and became the first in his family to attend college.

Afterward, he sought work in the county schools. He was a horticulture teacher for a time and a middle school principal, but was best known as principal of Northwestern High in Hyattsville. After more than 20 years in the county, he left for Montgomery County, doing stints as a principal and community superintendent before landing the top job in Anne Arundel County.

He was at the helm there for seven years and named Maryland Superintendent of the Year.

“He came back to this county because this is where he lived and he really thought he could make a difference,” said John Ceschini, who was hired in 2014 to help integrate the arts into classroom instruction, one of Maxwell’s priorities.

Under Maxwell, 66, arts integration has expanded to more than 70 schools. Language immersion programs and full-day prekindergarten classes grew, as did programs that allow high school students to earn college credits. Enrollment increased from 125,100 in 2013 to 132,400 in 2017, which some touted as evidence of growing confidence in the system, while others pointed to demographic change.

Gains in student performance are less clear. Last year’s state test results in reading and math were slightly up for some grades compared with a year earlier but down for others, and lower than the state average. Graduation rates have risen since 2013 but have been questioned. The share of Advanced Placement exams that students passed — a show of college readiness — has hovered around 26 or 27 percent since 2013.

Maxwell declined to comment for this story, agreeing only to a single television interview he gave Tuesday, when his departure was announced.

Some reflected this week on Maxwell’s positives.

Jes Ellis, a third-grade teacher in Mount Rainier, was encouraged by Maxwell’s support for arts integration and environmental literacy. “There was a lot of emphasis on teaching the whole child, and not just testing,” she said.

Afie Mirshah-Nayar, principal at Largo High, was drawn to the school system in 2015 partly because of Maxwell, whom she sees as interested in innovative approaches. When her girls basketball team played at a state championship, Maxwell was there, she said.

“You know when you talk to him he was once a high school principal,” she said.

String of scandals

But Maxwell lost many supporters as crises swirled.

A major sex abuse case rocked the district in 2016, when police accused a school volunteer, Deonte Carraway, of coercing children to perform sex acts as he video-recorded them. Authorities said at least 23 children were victims. Carraway pleaded guilty in the case .

Maxwell insisted there was no systemic problem but formed a task force, which recommended major changes in district procedures.

Before long, another scandal emerged: the loss of a $6.4 million Head Start grant, after federal officials found problems that included teachers using corporal punishment and humiliating children, and said the district failed to make corrections.

Maxwell described the incidents as “poor judgment” from “a handful of people” — and “completely unacceptable,” pledging that students would not be left in the lurch. Amid the furor, he asked for the resignation of his chief of staff over an email that some believed showed the aide was trying to keep the school board from publicly discussing it.

Even so, many questioned why the problem had not been fixed — or made public — when federal officials raised it.

Some months later, another issue created turmoil: Hundreds of employees were placed on administrative leave for alleged abuse or neglect. Many said that although improved safety measures were needed, the school system went to the opposite extreme, sending more than 800 people off the job over the school year, many for weeks or months as investigations were conducted. They saw it as mismanagement by Maxwell and his administration.

Teachers feared any misstep or false accusation could get them fired. Parents worried about the toll on learning as substitutes rotated through classrooms for weeks or months.

Doris Reed, executive director of the county’s union for principals and administrators, said her organization had more members forced out of the system in that school year than in the entire previous decade. “It was ridiculous,” she said.

Looking back across her 26 years in the job, she said: “I don’t remember this much upheaval under any other superintendent or CEO.”

The most recent scandals appear to have been a turning point.

Last summer, allegations of fraud in graduation rates roiled the school system and touched off a state-ordered inquiry that found diplomas were given to ineligible students and thousands of grades had been changed in the days before graduation in 2016 and 2017.

Maxwell repeatedly pointed out that investigators did not find evidence of systemic fraud or intimidation. But critics said he minimized the problem, attributing much of it to sloppy record keeping and outdated procedures.

More recently, controversy flared on three occasions over pay raises for top aides and central-office staff. Critics called the increases large and reckless, steered to a favored few. Maxwell defended raises to his top aides, but called those in the human resources division unjustifiable.

Critics argue that Maxwell has not taken responsibility for the scandals during his watch, too often blaming others. They also say the district’s governing structure leaves him less accountable to the public and school board.

The structure changed in 2013 when Baker persuaded the legislature to give him expanded power to try to turn around the low-performing school system. He has the authority to pick the schools chief and three board members, and name the board chairman and vice chairman.

Edward Burroughs III, Maxwell’s toughest critic on the board and a member of the minority bloc, said the schools chief “was not forthcoming and honest when he failed.”

Burroughs said he had high hopes when Maxwell started — feeling he had a vested interest in the county — but lost faith over time. As Maxwell leaves, the school board member said he has concluded that student performance data “didn’t move” and employee morale is low. “What systemic improvement has he made?” he asked.

Maxwell is stepping down as Baker, his prime backer, seeks the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, more vulnerable to critics because of Maxwell’s scandals. Gov. Larry Hogan (R), whom Baker will face in November if he wins the primary, called for Maxwell’s firing.

Baker last week hailed Maxwell — scheduled to leave at the end of the school year — as “the best superintendent we’ve had in 40 years.”

State Sen. Paul Pinsky (D), who represents Prince George’s and goes back several decades with Maxwell, credited Maxwell for bringing stability, at least for a time, and for “modest steps forward.”

“Have there been mistakes? Absolutely.” In the past six to nine months, he said, “it began to be death by 100 cuts.”

Lori Morrow, a mother of two in Bowie and longtime PTA leader, said Maxwell’s departure raises questions about the future and shape of the system — whether changes in state law worked and how closely people tune into school board elections.

“It’s not just one person who has created all the issues, or one person who is going to solve all the issues,” she said.

Whether the political strife will make it more difficult to find a new leader is an open question, she said, asking: “Who is going to want to step into this with all of the drama?”

Moving forward

The average stay for a schools superintendent in a large, urban school system is 3½ years, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the national school superintendents association, known as AASA.

Maxwell lasted nearly five years.

The date and financial terms of his departure — and details about the search for a successor — will be decided once the academic year ends, school board Chairman Segun Eubanks said Saturday.

Despite the controversies, the open job will spark interest, said Domenech. Prince George’s is among the nation’s 25 largest school systems.

“What’s gone on in Prince George’s is unfortunate, but there are many candidates out there who are very eager, very excited, to take on the challenge,” he said.

Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, said he thought the upheaval could make it harder to attract some candidates, who could be wary of so much conflict.

Monniquer McCaskill, a parent from Temple Hills, counted herself among those who are ready for a change: “Maybe we could get someone who is going to really listen to the voices of the parents and the teachers on the front line.”

Via Washington Post 

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