Baker, Jacobs square off over Prince George's County schools takeover plan

Mark Gail/The Washington Post - Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.

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The chairman of the Prince George’s school board on Saturday lashed out at County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, calling his plan to take over operations of the county’s public schools a “last minute power grab.”

In her sharpest public comments to date, Verjeana Jacobs (District 5) said such a shift in power away from the elected school board could contribute to further instability in a system seeking its sixth superintendent in more than a decade. “It is a major structural change unaccompanied by a plan,” she said.

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Baker (D) and Jacobs sparred publicly about the proposal for the first time at a county House delegation meeting. With two weeks left before the Maryland General Assembly adjourns, Baker conceded that the timing was not ideal. But he told state lawmakers that it was imperative that changes be made before a new superintendent for the 123,000 student system is hired.

“We can’t kick it down the road anymore,” Baker said.

Delegates from the county on Saturday said they agreed that the system is in need of a major overhaul. The question is: Who should be granted control? The county executive, who has little legal authority over the school system and would like more? The nine-member elected school board? Or a combination of the two?

Baker last week unveiled a proposal that would give him direct charge of the school superintendent and the school system’s $1.7 billion budget, a move that would significantly limit the role of the Board of Education. He has examined similar proposals from big, urban school districts and said some of what worked in those communities could help Prince George’s fix its system and be more competitive in the Washington region.

Baker and Jacobs met privately Friday but reached no agreement on how to move forward.

On Saturday, Jacobs told lawmakers that the issues facing the county’s 204 public schools are complex and that changing the leadership won’t fix some of the root causes. She described a student population with a growing number of children with special needs and from low-income families.

“They come to us behind, and we spend the next 12 years getting them where they need to be,” she said.

But Baker said that after 20 years of trying different governing structures — an elected board, an appointed board, an oversight panel — profound problems persist, even if there are some signs of improvement.

“We are making progress in our educational system, but we haven’t done it fast enough,” he said. “Right now we don’t have anybody responsible,” he said. “When you have nine people responsible, you don’t have anybody responsible.”

Several lawmakers described the frustrations of dealing with an 18,000-employee system that they said is often unresponsive to parents or anyone who might need assistance. They questioned whether the board was willing to be held accountable for the problems.

Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s) said she has tried to win school board support in the past two years for legislation that would offer the public more information about contracts and spending practices, but has been repeatedly rebuffed by the school board.

“This year I came in and said ‘Can we please put together a task force and look at best practices,’ ” she said. “It was vehemently opposed by the school board.”

But some questioned whether a takeover by the county executive is the answer. Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Prince George’s) argued that Baker is “making a change just for the sake of making a change,” and she suggested that an outside expert be brought in to assess the system.

“Why don’t we give this issue the level of importance it deserves and give it a study like we give other important issues,” she said.

Lawmakers said they would examine Baker’s plan closely. Two public hearings are planned before the legislative session ends April 8. Baker also plans to hold a telephone “town hall” meeting Tuesday night.

“I am not happy that this is here at this time with so little preparation,” said Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George’s) .

“We are going to deal with it, go through it line by line, piece by piece and figure out if anything in here will advance our school system,” she said.

Baker told the lawmakers that the next move is theirs.

“That is why you were elected, to make tough choices,” he said. “By the next election, you will know and people will know about what choice you will have made.”

 
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