Petition to block changes to Prince George’s school system fails to get enough signatures

A community activist group that opposed Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s plan to restructure the public school system collected about 4,500 signatures, falling short in its attempt to block a new law that gives Baker new powers over the schools from going into effect on Saturday.

Citizens for An Elected Board launched a petition drive five weeks ago, hoping to collect the 8,000 signatures needed before Friday’s deadline.

“We're not nearly where we hoped we’d be,” said Deborah Sell, one of the key organizers of the petition. “We don’t have enough to take it to referendum.”

If the group had been successful, it would have needed 23,195 more signatures, or 10 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election, by June 30 to place the issue on the November 2014 general election ballot.

David Cahn, the group’s co-chair, said earlier this week that he did not know how many signatures had been collected and was waiting for canvassers, who included a couple of school board members and several rank and file union members, to hand in forms.

He sounded less than optimistic after spending hours trying to convince residents outside graduation ceremonies to sign the petition.

“If I had to guess I’d say it’s 50-50,” Cahn said on Wednesday. “I really don’t know how this is going to go.”

Citizens for An Elected Board lost key support two weeks ago when the county branch of the NAACP voted to support Baker’s plan. The NAACP had worked with the community activist group during the legislative session to persuade state lawmakers to reject the Baker’s school takeover plan but opted last month to back Baker.

“We got stymied along the way when the NAACP pulled out,” said Sell, who plans to work with stakeholders to introduce an amended state bill next legislative session.

Cahn and Jan Haney, a co-chair, spent much of the week outside graduation ceremonies, collecting signatures, and encouraging residents to sign petitions on the group’s Web site.

Laura Moore, a resident of Greenbelt and a member of Baker’s transition team, said she signed the petition after weighing the proposal. She said she thinks Baker has the best of intentions, but she is concerned about how quickly the law will go into effect.

“I think there are a lot of people who feel overwhelmed by how quickly this happened and want more time to think about it and understand it,” Moore said.

Moore, who is thinking about becoming a teacher, said voters deserve a chance to weigh in.

Cahn said many people shared Moore’s sentiments.

Many people who signed the petition said they thought Baker will have too much power under the new structure, Cahn said. Others were upset that they were not allowed to have a say in whether the selection process for the schools chief needed to be changed and if the school board should be expanded, he said.

Baker did not fight the petition drive, but asked residents “to give this an opportunity to work.”

His concern, he said, was that the new governance structure, which is designed to improve the school system, would be delayed if the group’s efforts were successful.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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