Maryland Senate scheduled to vote on Prince George’s schools bill compromise

April 2, 2013

Maryland senators are scheduled to vote on a compromise bill Wednesday that would allow Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III to select the county’s new schools superintendent and choose the chairman and vice chairman of a retooled Board of Education.

But the legislation bears little resemblance to Baker’s original plan to take over the county’s struggling school system, as the school board would retain control over the superintendent and the school system’s $1.7 billion budget.

The county executive had sought a more expansive takeover of Maryland’s second-largest school system, one that would have given him power over the budget, the superintendent and the day-to-day operations of the schools. Baker (D) has said that the schools’ lack of progress has become a hindrance to growth, arguing that one person — the county executive — should be accountable for school performance.

Although the bill is a significant departure from his original plan, Baker said the new measure gives him “greater authority and greater accountability” than he had. He said the compromise is “much better than the current setup.”

Baker ran into resistance shortly after he presented the idea to state lawmakers during this legislative session, and he said he was not deflated: “I am a grown-up and I know the legislative process works the way it does.”

Even though Baker received wide support from Prince George’s County delegates and senators, many lawmakers from other jurisdictions balked, raising concerns about the precedent Baker would set statewide by having control of the schools chief and school budget. They also worried about a provision that would have allowed the superintendent to set school employees’ salaries.

The nine-member elected school board vehemently opposed the plan, which would have significantly reduced its role. The teachers union blasted the proposal because of collective-bargaining concerns. Some residents raised questions about Baker’s last-minute action.

But others, including many parents who have been unsatisfied with the pace of progress in the school system, supported Baker’s plan.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who criticized the plan, recently worked with Baker and members of the county’s House delegation to draft a bill that attempted to balance the county executive’s request to restructure while maintaining the integrity of local school boards, which are created by the state.

The bill would require the superintendent to answer to the school board but would put limits on the board’s ability to control day-to-day operations, requiring a two-thirds vote to override actions taken by the superintendent.

It also would modify Baker’s proposal to reconfigure the school board, giving him authority to appoint two members while also giving the County Council the authority to appoint two more. Baker also would be able to choose the chairman and vice chairman of the board, a power he had not originally sought.

Although the school board had selected three finalists to replace former superintendent William R. Hite Jr., the bill would create a new search committee that would review dozens of candidates for the superintendent position and ultimately recommend three people to the county executive. The county executive would then choose the next schools chief.

On Tuesday, one of the finalists chosen by the school board took himself out of the running for the job. It was not clear why Eric J. Becoats, who is superintendent in Durham, N.C., withdrew from consideration, Prince George’s schools spokesman Briant Coleman said.

John Wagner contributed to this report.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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