Maryland Senate introduces Baker school takeover legislation

Maryland lawmakers introduced a bill Monday that would give Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III direct control over the county’s schools superintendent and operations. But the measure, a watered-down version of Baker’s plan to take over the struggling school system, proposes keeping its $1.7 billion budget in the hands of a retooled county Board of Education, effectively splitting power between Baker and the elected board.

Baker (D) had initially sought a more expansive takeover that would have put him in charge of the budget and the new school superintendent and significantly reduced the role of the nine-member elected school board.

Baker said Monday that the legislation was a “work in progress.” He said he hopes the bill, which was introduced in the state Senate, would be amended by lawmakers to give him more of the control he had sought.

Baker offered the restructuring plan after years of turmoil in Maryland’s second-largest school system, which has seen rapid turnover of superintendents and modest improvement in student performance that has languished near the bottom of statewide rankings. The school system is hiring its sixth superintendent in a little more than a decade.

Similar transfers of control have happened in big cities across the country, including the District and New York, where mayors have sought to turn around troubled school systems by taking control of finances and day-to-day operations.

In Prince George’s, Baker’s plan ran into trouble last week shortly after he announced the proposal. As lawmakers from other jurisdictions pored over the details, some became particularly concerned about the precedent Baker would set if he received control of the school system’s budget.

“What we’re doing here is not just affecting Prince George’s but the other 22 counties. And that’s where everybody is very cautious,” said Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s), who introduced the legislation on Baker’s behalf.

Key lawmakers also worried about a provision that would allow the superintendent to set school employees’ salaries. And the lawmakers said they were concerned that the superintendent position could turn over every four years, when a new county executive is elected.

Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s), who backs Baker’s plan, said the measure introduced by Peters “is a little more palatable to most people. It gives consideration to the concerns of the unions and to people who thought that we were giving too much power to one office.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he also was hopeful lawmakers could find a way forward, although an expansive takeover appears to face longer odds of clearing his chamber than the Senate.

Peters said that even though the legislation was introduced with just two weeks left in Maryland’s legislative session, there would be two and possibly three public hearings on it.

“We want to make sure it is properly vetted,” he said. “People can put in their thoughts, and we’ll see which direction we go.”

Under the legislation, Baker would select the school system’s chief executive — currently known as the superintendent — who would then have to be confirmed by the County Council to serve a four-year term. The CEO, who would become a member of the county executive’s cabinet, would be responsible for day-to-day management and oversight of the school system’s fiscal affairs.

Baker said his ability to hire the superintendent and make that office part of his administration was critical to his plan.

“That was nonnegotiable,” he said.

Under the measure introduced, the CEO would have wide-ranging authorities; among other things, he or she could set school boundaries, consolidate schools and arrange student transportation.

The CEO would continue to work with the school board to develop a budget. But since the position would be part of the county executive’s cabinet, Baker would have more initial input in the spending plan.

The school board would continue to have control over the $1.7 billion budget, and the board also would continue to set the salaries of employees and bargain with the unions. Baker wanted the superintendent to have the power to set salaries, which led the teachers’ union, concerned about collective bargaining agreements, to oppose the entire plan.

Under Baker’s original plan, the county executive’s office would have line-item authority over the schools budget, which is more than half the county’s $2.7 billion budget.

School Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5), who on Saturday called Baker’s plan “a last-minute power grab,” said Monday that she needed more information about the bill before commenting.

The board, which would gain six additional appointed members, would offer methods for student assessment and mediation and assist the superintendent in developing a program to train principals in increasing parental involvement.

The new school board members would include an appointee picked by the county executive, a County Council appointee, the president of the PTA Council and three nonvoting members representing Bowie State University, the University of Maryland at College Park and Prince George’s Community College.

If an elected board seat became vacant, the county executive could fill the seat.

Similar to the student board member, the president of the PTA would have limited voting power and would not be allowed to attend executive board sessions unless invited.

Most state lawmakers who represent Prince George’s agreed with Baker that changes to the school system are needed.

During a meeting with Baker and Jacobs on Saturday, several Prince George’s delegates 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.

Miranda S. Spivack contributed to this report.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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