Do you listen to the still, small voice within? I do. It often offers insights I might have overlooked, or reveal something new that needs attention. Wednesday evening, for instance, I arrived at the Prince George’s NAACP office in Upper Marlboro for what turned out to be the gathering of less than a dozen people to discuss their opposition to a new bill that would create a task force to study the composition, qualifications and compensation of the Prince George’s County School Board.
No doubt, it was the fiery, perfect-pitched rhetoric of David L. Cahn, co-chair of the Citizens for an Elected Board, a coalition that formed 11 years ago to restore the county’s elected school board, that first drew my attention.
“We don’t need anybody to study taking away our voting rights. It’s not an appropriate thing to study: taking away democracy,” he said in a phone interview on Jan. 14. “The structure of the school doesn’t affect student performance. When we had an appointed school board, their crowning achievement was hiring a superintendent” who was convicted of steering school system contracts to his girlfriend. Cahn was referring to former superintendent Andre Hornsby.
Cahn railed against the bill, introduced last month by Delegate Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D) and last week opposed by the School Board under siege. It would create a nine-member task force to study and make recommendations on methods for selecting a board, measures to ensure the composition of the board reflects the gender and racial diversity of the county, criteria that improves accountability, transparency and oversight, and criteria for establishing and measuring board outcomes. Four members of the task force would be appointed by the Senate delegation and the House delegation, to be joined by the County Executive and the County Council, and chair of the School Board, the superintendent, and a member of the Board (or someone they appoint).
“Every appointment amounts to patronage,” Cahn says. “It could go to someone who’s wonderful, or it could go to someone who’s contributing to someone’s campaign.” He went on about de-politicizing the school board, so it is not merely or mostly training ground for the politically ambitious. He considers this bill an inconvenient diversion, at a time when the board needs to find a new superintendent, close achievement gaps, and improve school safety.
I love citizens who are passionate about holding their elected officials accountable, and Cahn, an attorney who lives in Upper Marlboro, is clearly such a guy. But it was the quiet, humble, unassuming approach of Prince George’s NAACP president Bob Ross, who was an active PTA member and PTA official when his son was enrolled in a county high school, that resonated most.
“It’s something we’re going to look at. We’re not going to say ‘no,’ right away,” Ross said after their closed meeting, where I was not allowed. They identified changes to the bill that would make it more acceptable, he said. “A task force might not be a bad idea with some changes to the language in the bill,” Ross said, adding that he plans to meet with the delegate about her bill very soon.
Improving the county’s schools is high on the agenda of County Executive Rushern R. Baker, III, who worked as an education executive at a non-profit organization in the District of Columbia between political stints. Last month, he told The Post’s Miranda Spivak the success of schools is crucial to building the county’s future. Some in the county are accusing him of over-stepping his bounds, endorsing school board members and working closely with Del. Valentino-Smith, who introduced the bill to study sweeping reforms of the School Board.
According to the bill, the task force, if formed, “may also invite,” representatives from certain school-affiliated unions, the county PTA Council, student councils, the NAACP and other associations to testify at hearings. Will the members of this task force listen to the small voices of lone parents, who deserve the right to vote for their board members?
Earnest L. Moore, president of the Prince George’s County PTA Council, attended the meeting at NAACP headquarters Wednesday. He sounded protective of the current school board, which he says is open and cooperative any time the PTA Council, which represents PTA’s throughout the County, has questions.
“I think they have very good leadership…I believe they are beginning to engage the community in a positive way,” he said.
He would not want to see an elected board replaced by an appointed board or a hybrid one. “Citizens cast their vote. If you’re looking to change that, it concerns me,” Moore said.
Montgomery is a columnist for The Root DC.
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