Prince George’s County reacts to Rushern Baker’s plan to take over the school system

Mark Gail/The Washington Post - Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III.

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A newly elected Prince George’s County school board member said Sunday that she strongly supports County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s plan to take over the county’s struggling school system, saying the board is hampering the schools and is averse to accountability.

Carletta Fellows (District 7), whom the board recently censured for her outspoken criticism, said in an e-mail that she endorses Baker’s proposal, which would put him directly in charge of the superintendent of schools and the school system’s $1.7 billion budget while limiting the role of the county’s elected Board of Education.

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“I regret that I have to say this, but we simply can’t afford for this same body to, in coming weeks, commit $1.7 billion of our tax dollars and hire the next superintendent,” Fellows said. “Our children, our parents and our community deserve better. We can no longer afford to sit around and passively accept the further degradation and deterioration of our schools. Therefore, I join County Executive Baker in his efforts to bring results and accountability to what I see as an urban school system in crisis.”

Fellows said her decision is based on her three months on the board, a body she found “hostile to independent review, transparency or accountability.”

“Significant decisions about millions in spending, major personnel, school security and curriculum issues were routinely made with embarrassingly limited information,” Fellows said.

Baker’s proposal, a dramatic move that would be akin to school takeovers in cities such as the District and New York, drew strong responses Sunday from county residents, community leaders and other elected officials. Some praised Baker for his attempt to turn around the county’s struggling school system, while others denounced him for what they described as a power grab.

Board member Edward Burroughs III (District 8) said he was disappointed by Baker’s decision to release his plan days before three school superintendent finalists from Durham, Chicago and Prince George’s are scheduled to attend community forums. Baker said it is unclear whether any of the three finalists would become superintendent under his proposal, and he didn’t rule out expanding the search beyond them.

“Time after time, [Baker] assured the people he had no desire to take over the school system, but today those suspicions have been confirmed,” Burroughs said. “This sounds to me more about power and control than student achievement. That’s the conversation we should be having.”

Carolyn M. Boston (District 6) said she could not comment because the school board was planning to meet on Monday. Other board members, including Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs, did not respond to requests for comment.

Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the county’s House delegation, applauded Baker for addressing what she called the “final and most important piece in our county’s renaissance.”

Ivey said she has attended numerous public forums in the county where residents have criticized Baker for the school system’s shortcomings.

“People think the county executive is running the schools, but all he can do is send money,” Ivey said. “If he is going to be judged on our schools, he needs to do more.”

Should Baker’s plan meet approval in Annapolis, the county executive would gain control of school system operations, with the schools superintendent becoming a member of his cabinet and gaining significantly more power. The County Council would confirm Baker’s choice for schools chief and have oversight of the schools’ budget.

The Board of Education would gain six new members, three of whom would be appointed and have voting powers. But its function would be diminished, focusing almost entirely on academics and parental engagement.

State Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s) said he plans to support Baker’s proposed state legislation, which likely will be added as amendments to a bill that Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s) proposed months ago to form a task force to review the operations of the school board.

“I think he is going in the right direction,” Currie said, describing the school system as the “weak link” in the county’s ability to move forward. Baker has long said the schools — which rank toward the bottom of Maryland’s school systems in terms of achievement — are a hurdle to economic growth.

Bob Ross, president of the county branch of the NAACP, said his members would mobilize to oppose Baker’s proposal. Ross questioned Baker’s strategy of adding late amendments to a bill designed to examine the Board of Education’s future.

“They told us the bill would form an exploratory committee to look at making the school board accountable. Now all of a sudden they want to put an amendment in,” Ross said.

Tonya Lawson, president of the Oxon Hill High School Parent Teacher Student Association, said she plans to work with Baker to make his plan become a reality.

“This is a time for radical change to happen,” Lawson said. “What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing and expecting a different result? We can’t continue like that. . . . There has to be a new way of thinking in order for us to move forward.”

 
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