Hoping to persuade Prince George’s County schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. to remain in his job, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III hurried to a closed-door school board meeting in Upper Marlboro one evening last month.
His unexpected appearance, together with that of Council Chairman Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale), was a last-ditch effort.
“We made it clear that we were willing to do what we could to make him stay,” Baker (D) said later.
But with no direct control over how the school system operates or who gets hired, Baker was, in effect, little more than a bystander offering his opinions.
The next day, Hite — who had received a personal visit from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D) about a week before — announced that he would leave Maryland’s second-largest school system to run the Philadelphia School District.
Now, with the 123,000-student system in search of a superintendent and a majority of seats on the school board up for election in the fall, Baker is positioning himself to take a greater role in county schools.
Unlike the D.C. mayor, who has direct power over the city’s school system, or the mayor of Philadelphia, who appoints two members to a five-member authority that runs the schools, the Prince George’s executive has no control over the county’s schools beyond allocating funds.
Baker, who realizes that good schools are key to the county’s prosperity, has staked a lot on improving the school system, telling residents to “judge this administration” on what happens with the schools. The system, which historically has had uneven test scores, has made strides academically in recent years. But with limited authority in education, Baker faces major challenges — including a skeptical school board — that could frustrate his attempts to have an impact.
In a news conference last month, Baker said he planned to be active in improving county schools.
“I am going to go beyond the traditional role as county executive,” he said. “I am going to push the envelope and seek out innovation models for teaching and learning for our children, because I am on a mission to make us a leader in this region and throughout the state.”
Baker said the commission will make recommendations on programs in which the county should invest, work with county agencies and develop quarterly and annual progress reports.
The move has left some school board members suspicious of Baker’s intentions. About a decade ago, when he was a state delegate, Baker participated in an effort that led to the dissolution of an elected school board in Prince George’s. The appointed-board structure later ended, and the county went back to an elected board.
But Baker said he does not want to seize control of the school system.
“This is not a takeover of the board,” Baker said in an interview last week. “I’ve told them this is not. You don’t have to wonder where I’m coming from. If I thought the governance was the way to go, I’d say that.”
Baker met with members of the school board Wednesday to discuss working together in the search for the new superintendent. He said he doesn’t plan to just “wait and see.” Instead, he said, he wants to “make sure that the best person is picked.”
His office and the county House and Senate delegation will attend a community forum in August or September “as one leadership group with the school board being the lead and the rest of us coming in as partners,” Baker said. “That way, whoever comes in on the long-term basis will see that this is a collective effort.”
Baker said that over the next few weeks, he also plans to look at school board candidates and eventually play a role in the November elections. Five seats on the nine-member board are open. Three candidates younger than 21 and attending college were the top vote-getters in their primary races.
“Clearly, I want a board that is engaged in the overall mission and policy of the school system,” he said. “I want to make sure we get the best school board with the greatest amount of maturity.”
Baker has made improving schools a key component of his economic development and overall agenda, acknowledging that the county’s historically troubled system has discouraged companies from locating in the county.
“The message I tried to get across to the school board and to Dr. Hite is that we are making progress, but I want to see us move quicker,” Baker said, explaining the decision to form the commission.
Baker said he wants to work collaboratively with the school board. But some board members said Baker, who has rarely met with them since he took office in December 2010, has not forged the type of relationship in the past year and a half that indicates a desire to work together. Instead, they said, he chose to handpick a commission to work with, even though it will have no power to implement policy.
One board member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the politically sensitive issue, noted that Baker appointed Aimee Olivo, a parent from Cheverly, to the commission. Olivo was defeated by school board member Patricia Eubanks (District 4) in a 2010 board election.
“What kind of message does that send to the person who beat Aimee Olivo?” the board member asked. “That’s a direct comment on how well [he’s] working with the board.”
Three members said they were not told in advance that Baker planned to form a commission. The board sent a letter to Baker asking him to clarify the commission’s responsibilities.
“All I know is what I read about it,” the board member said. “I guess STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] is their overriding discussion.”
Baker said he has met with the board about three times a year. But some members dispute that, saying it has been less often.
Baker said he wants to improve education holistically. For example, one school has allocated resources to teach about 20 parents how to speak English. Baker said the effort may not seem directly related to a child’s education, but the parents are likely to become more engaged after learning English, he said. There may be other ideas that the school system would like to offer, he said, if it had more resources.
Segun Eubanks, the director of teacher quality for the National Education Association and chairman of Baker’s commission, said the panel will examine education policies and reforms, including extended school days, charter schools and middle school teams. “We won’t be making the decisions, but we hope that we can supplement what is going on,” said Eubanks, who is Baker’s former brother-in-law.
Board member Edward Burroughs (District 8) said Baker’s involvement could prove fruitful. For example, he would like to see full-day pre-kindergarten restored. Maybe, he said, the commission will recommend that to Baker.
“I just hope the [commission] works along with the school board to improve our school system,” Burroughs said. “We’re at the point of not turning down any help or advice from any group.”