Baker says school takeover plan seeks to make Prince George’s more competitive


County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has proposed a takeover of the Prince George’s County school system that would give him control of the superintendent and the schools’ $1.7 billion budget. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

Student test scores are among the lowest in the Washington region. Many classrooms are overcrowded. School buses often arrive late or not at all. Superintendents and teachers often leave after spending just a couple of years in the district.

These and other problems have plagued the Prince George’s County schools for two decades, contributing to the instability of Maryland’s second-largest school system. In large part, they are also what prompted County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) to make a sudden push for control of the school system this month.

Now, as Baker tries to persuade state lawmakers to put him in charge of not only the schools superintendent but also the school system’s $1.7 billion budget, some residents are pinning their hopes for the county’s future on what they believe could be the salvation of the school system. Others wonder if a new governing structure can help the schools, or if a shake-up could create even more problems.

Whatever the outcome, Baker has taken a public stand on an issue he has long targeted. He believes that the school system is in need of repair and that if this isn’t done, the county will struggle to draw new businesses and residents as it competes with wealthier counties that have better schools.

“The county is sandwiched between [Montgomery and Fairfax counties] with the most successful school systems in the country,” said former Maryland governor Parris Glendening (D), who also served as Prince George's county executive from 1982 to 1994. “Businesses are reluctant to locate where they cannot attract and retain the employees they want. So you get in a vicious cycle here.”

State lawmakers introduced a bill last week that would give Baker partial control of the schools, allowing him to select and have authority over the superintendent but keeping the school system’s purse strings in the hands of the elected school board.

“We at least have a fighting chance” with Baker’s plan, said Brian Woolfolk, a lawyer who lives in Fort Washington and sends his daughter to private school because of bad experiences his friends have had with the public schools.

“I don’t have confidence in the system,” Woolfolk said. “And I don’t see this as a magical fix, but I think we are at a crossroads in hiring a superintendent. . . . By every indication, this county is suffering based on the school system.”

If the schools were better, businesses and residents would be less reluctant to make the county their home, said M.H. Jim Estepp, head of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable and a former County Council chairman.

Even when service members learn they will be deployed at Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs and other military installations in the county, Estepp said, “They are told, ‘You don’t want to go there because of the schools.’ ”

School board Chairman Verjeana Jacobs (District 5), who has described Baker’s plan as a “last-minute power grab,” said it was unfair to blame the school system, which has shown improvements, for a lack of progress.

“Our kids are failing because the adults are failing,” Jacobs said. “If we can put all our social ills on the school system, that is the easiest place to blame.”

Shane James, a senior at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, agreed, saying that Baker’s proposal does not address what he sees as the real problems facing the school system.

“There are systemic problems,” said James, who called Baker’s schools plan a “terrible” idea. “The real issue is underfunded schools, underpaid teachers, poor facilities, crumbling schools.”

Baker said in an interview that he is trying to attack the systemic issues facing the school system, including low graduation rates and high truancy, by making the county executive accountable for the school system and giving public schools more resources.

By selecting the superintendent, Baker would have greater input in the day-to-day operations of the school system. Control of the budget — which Annapolis might decline to grant — would allow Baker to consolidate purchasing and other operations with the rest of the county government, creating greater efficiencies.

If Baker can find ways to save money in a county where property taxes that fund schools are subject to a cap, more funds could be directed to classrooms. The county spends $12,296 per pupil, less than higher-performing Fairfax and Montgomery counties, which spend $13,564 and $14,880, respectively.

Baker said fixing schools — especially in the county’s inner Beltway communities, where test scores are among the lowest — is a key component of his overall plan to improve the county. Baker studied ways to raise student achievement when he worked as head of an education nonprofit group, and he said he has heard repeatedly from businesses that they were enthusiastic about coming to the county but put off by the state of the public schools.

This year, Baker met with his executive staff to discuss the school system. Their assignment was to figure out what the government could do to move the schools from their position near the bottom of the state rankings to No. 5, in line with counties of similar size and demographics.

“A lot of what we talked about were around-the-edges stuff, because we can’t coordinate our transportation with the school system without them agreeing to it,” Baker said. “We really can’t coordinate our social services and family services without them agreeing to that. . . . It then becomes harder to do if [they] don’t understand why it’s important.”

Baker, who had a good working relationship with former superintendent William R. Hite Jr., was frustrated not only that Hite left last year but also “with the whole structural problems that you run into with the way that we operate our education system.”

Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), who has served in the General Assembly for nearly 20 years, said he is constantly bombarded by constituent complaints about the school system’s slow progress.

“There have been modest gains . . . but we had nowhere to go but up,” Davis said. “Can I guarantee that this will improve schools? I can’t make that guarantee. But we need to plot a different course. . . . If [Baker is] willing to take it on, I’m willing to back it.”

After a bitter battle took place in 2002 to get rid of the elected board of education and replace it with an appointed board — a move that was reversed in 2006 — Baker’s new schools plan has run into fresh resistance in the General Assembly, where several lawmakers are concerned that the county executive would have more power than any other in the state.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), a former teacher, has questioned how having a new county executive — who could change superintendents every four years and potentially use the position to reward a political ally — would be better for long-term stability in the school district.

Kenneth Wong, an education professor at Brown University, described Baker’s plan as an “interesting hybrid” that is unlike any other structure he has seen in the country.

“It keeps the checks and balances,” Wong said. “An elected board and an appointed school superintendent who answers to the executive can still call into question whether an executive is doing a good job or not. They can hold public hearings, talk about quality of curriculum, of implementation of standards. They can have an impact on the budget.”

In school systems where the executive is in charge — such as in Boston, Chicago and New York — turnover in the superintendent’s position has slowed, Wong said.

“Reforming this would enable stability,” Wong said. “High turnover of education leadership is not good for principals and teachers, who then have to catch up with the reform of the day.”

A high school teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing discussions said he didn’t see how the restructuring would affect what happens each day in his classroom, unless it leads to more funding.

“The more money in the classrooms, the better,” he said.

But he added that he sees the takeover as a “shifting of the bureaucracy.”

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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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