Pr. George’s Board of Education partners with corporate foundation to help with governance

The Prince George’s County Board of Education, facing a rocky start in a new era of school governance, has entered into a short-term agreement with a corporate foundation to help ease its transition from an elected board to a hybrid board with government oversight.

Board Chairman Segun Eubanks said the school board voted Thursday night during a closed session to partner with Panasonic Foundation, which works with urban school districts to implement education reforms. He said the partnership is designed to “move [the county’s] agenda forward.”

Panasonic, which has affiliations with school systems in Elizabeth, N.J., San Diego and Connecticut, will assist the county during the next nine months to navigate the governance structure approved by state lawmakers in April. Prince George’s will be one of the largest school districts to partner with Panasonic.

The agreement is one of the most significant steps the board has taken since the General Assembly gave County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) the power to choose the schools chief, name three appointed board members and select the board chair and vice chair.

The move to team with Panasonic also speaks to the challenges that the reconfigured 13-member panel has faced in its early days since the legislation went into effect in June, and about the work that lies ahead.

Eubanks said the board is considering a 10-year agreement with Panasonic that could begin next year.

“There have been growing pains, but you expect that with any change,” Eubanks said. “We are looking at facilitating the relationship between the board, the superintendent and the county executive. We are already doing that, but this will help move the process forward.”

Since the legislation took effect, the board has experienced upheaval. Two members, citing personal reasons, abruptly resigned within two months of each other. And several elected members have said they feel marginalized, which they think has stifled the board’s working relationship.

Verjeana Jacobs (District 5), who served as chair for six years before the restructuring, cited “a lack of inclusion and collaboration” in schools matters. “I know there are conversations at the county executive level that don’t include the board,” she said.

Edward Burroughs (District 8) said the new structure has created a situation where “there is no accountability to the board” because board leadership is appointed. He said, for example, that a member of Baker’s administration received a presentation from Panasonic, but most board members were excluded. Still, the board was asked to vote on the agreement.

“I’m hoping moving forward we’ll figure it out and figure it out soon so we can have the conversations about student achievement,” Burroughs said.

Some current and former board members said the environment has been tense.

Former board member Donna Hathaway Beck, who resigned earlier this month to spend more time with her family, said she felt like she was moving further away from the reason why she ran for the school board, which was to help students.

“It just became harder and harder to be part of that,” Beck said. “I knew it would be a different environment. I was there for the kids and spending too much time with adults. It was less impactful for kids and it was more about drama. . . . You have the takeovers sitting next to the ones who were taken over.”

She said the problems were not just about “Baker’s oversight, but also the new, inexperienced leadership on the board.”

Eubanks said it takes time to adjust to new leadership and changes in how things are done, and other members of the board said that despite some disagreement, things are moving in the right direction. Eubanks said that in the past several months, the board has approved the teachers union contract and signed an agreement with a new charter school connected to the University of Maryland.

He said the agreement with Panasonic is “about laying the foundation” for future board work.

Board member Amber Waller (District 3), who originally came to the board in 2007 as an appointed member and was elected to the seat a year later, said she thinks the transition is working well.

“Everyone doesn’t agree, but we are figuring out a way to disagree without a big disagreement,” Waller said.

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said it was not surprising that Prince George’s has decided to partner with a foundation to help it deal with “an especially challenging transition for the board.”

“The legislation created a model which has fractured accountability and responsibility and that creates some particular barriers for the school board members on how to make this work,” Hess said. “It doesn’t mean it can’t work. It just poses challenges.”

Hess said he was unfamiliar with Panasonic or its work, but he said it is not unusual for struggling school systems to use foundations for training.

“Learning to mesh personalities, deal with politics and set board norms is a challenge,” Hess said.

Representatives from the foundation will attend board meetings, assess the school system’s needs, lead retreats and help the board devise and implement its agenda.

Panasonic is not new to the Washington region. The foundation has led board retreats and planning sessions, including the work around the development of core values in Montgomery County Public Schools, according to Dana Tofig, a district spokesman. It is also working with 10 innovation schools in Montgomery, providing resources and support to help improve student achievement and narrow achievement gaps.

Ovetta Wiggins covers Maryland state politics in Annapolis.

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