Davis to be sworn in to replace Leslie Johnson; makes school reform goal

Derrick Leon Davis is slated to be sworn in Tuesday as Prince George’s newest county council member and could quickly provide pivotal support for County Executive Rushern L. Baker’s legislative goals.

Davis, 43, of Mitchellville, replaces Leslie Johnson, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in a federal corruption probe.

The new council member has spent much of his career working in public education and hopes to play in efforts to improve the county’s struggling public school system, one of Baker’s targets for reform. Baker and Davis have long been aligned in county politics, and Baker threw his support to Davis early in the 14-way Democratic primary.

Before Davis can tackle school system issues, he will be confronted with a measure that some supporters say could help the county increase funding for the system.

A week after he takes office, the council is slated to have a marathon session to vote on pending legislation before taking several weeks off. One of the most divisive issues on the agenda is abill that would use the county’s zoning power to ban slot machine gambling. Penn National Gaming, which recently bought Rosecroft Raceway, wants to bring slots there, and several powerful Maryland politicians, including State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), have been pressuring county officials to oppose the ban.

Davis said he will vote against the measure, proposed by County Council member Eric Olson (D-College Park), because it is “premature,” a phrase that Baker also employs to explain his reluctance to back Olson’s bill.

Davis might provide the tie-breaker to kill the bill; for now Olson only has four certain votes. Baker, who opposed slots while in the General Assembly, said doing so now would tie his hands in negotiations with state leaders for funds for Prince George’s projects, such as a new hospital and more money for schools.

And while, like Baker, slot machine gambling is not Davis’s first choice for new sources of tax revenue, he said the county needs to look at all the options.

Lawmakers are always on the hunt for funds for Prince George’s public schools. The county is under a voter-imposed tax cap and has a school budget significantly smaller than that of neighboring Montgomery County, even though it has only about 10,000 fewer students.

Davis said he wants to put more money into early childhood education, reduce teacher turnover and find ways to attract and retain “the best and the brightest.” In successful school systems, he said, turnover is limited. The county school system is ranked among the lowest in achievement in the state, although it has made gains in recent years.

Before he takes office, Davis is making the rounds of community leaders and religious leaders in his mid-county District 6, which stretches from struggling areas inside the Beltway to affluent gated communities in the east. Despite her legal troubles, Johnson maintained a high profile during her seven months in office and her predecessor, Council member Sam Dean, also had been very active in the community during his eight years on the council.

Davis said he doubts the county will ever have all the money it wants to help pay for the schools, whose current budget is about $1.6 billion, compared to about $2.3 billion in Montgomery County. The County Council sets the budget for the county and the school system, but specific spending plans are devised by the elected school board.

So he said he is urging local religious leaders to “talk to the people who come to church every Sunday,” and encourage them to take a greater role in their children’s education, study habits and preparation for school.

“We need to prepare every child for high academic achievement,” Davis said. “Every day we need to send them into the classroom ready to go.”

Miranda Spivack writes about government and politics in the suburbs, based in the Post’s bureau in Largo in Prince George’s County.
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