Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who has made improving schools one of his top priorities, told members of the school board and his advisory commission on education this week that the two groups must work together if the county is going to make the gains they all want to see.
Baker said regardless of the recent positive developments in the county, including a substantial reduction in crime, a state commitment to build a regional hospital and the creation of a multimillion-dollar economic development fund, Prince George’s will be defined by how effective it is in educating its children. The main driver of residential property values is schools, he said.
“It’s all for naught if we don’t in a demonstrative way show we are making progress” in the schools, Baker told the group in the first joint meeting since the commission was appointed last year.
Trying to allay the fears of school board members who have questioned the role and authority of the appointed commission, Baker repeated that commission members are not trying to replace the board or duplicate its efforts. He said he would like to see the two groups forge a relationship similar to the one his office has with the Sheriff’s Department and the Office of the State’s Attorney, which have worked together to reduce violent crimes.
“They are here to enhance the job you’re doing,” Baker said of the commission, which will make recommendations on academic programs that can boost student achievement.
With the board deciding in the next few months who will lead the 123,000 school system, Board Chairman Verjeana Jacobs (District 4) agreed that Baker’s office, the commission and the board must be united. Former school superintendent William R. Hite Jr. resigned in July to take a post in Philadelphia.
“This really could be a national poster board for how to do it right,” Jacobs said. “We are anxious to be your partners.”
Heather Iliff, a member of the commission, said she hopes that the board can leave the past behind them, including the acrimony that led to the elected board being replaced with an appointed board. The school board is now elected.
“We need to have a united voice in Annapolis and on Capitol Hill,” she said.
Other members said they look forward to having a frank dialogue about public education and ways to help students. Starting next month, the commission will hold focus groups of teachers, principals, parents and business leaders to “study ways to improve the image and perception” of the school system.
Members of both groups said it is important for the county to not only make improvements, but to make sure residents are aware of the progress that has already been made. School board member Peggy Higgins (District 2) said Maryland is again No. 1 in education in the nation because of the strides that have been made in Prince George’s.
“Prince George’s is one of the largest school districts in the state,” Higgins said. “Without Prince George’s success, Maryland would not be number one again.”