Prince George’s County school reform law takes effect

After the Maryland General Assembly approved legislation to overhaul the Prince George’s County public schools two months ago, residents were left wondering what changes would be in store for the 123,000-student system.

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III fought to restructure the system and promised to turn it around, but it was unclear who would run the schools and who would make up the reconstituted school board. With the overhaul law taking effect over the weekend, Baker announced decisions ahead of Monday’s first official business day under new management.

Interim school superintendent Alvin Crawley — whose resignation was supposed to be effective Monday — has agreed to stay until a permanent chief is selected, meaning there will be no immediate change at the schools’ helm. Late Friday night, Baker (D) announced that Segun Eubanks, the head of Baker’s education commission, will become chairman of the Board of Education, replacing Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5), who has served for the past six years and will continue as an elected member.

“Bring [Eubanks] on, and Dr. Crawley staying at least should give everyone comfort that the process is moving,” Baker said Saturday after Eubanks’s swearing-in ceremony. “Any confusion of what’s going to happen, who’s going to be in charge, should be lifted. . . . The sooner we can start with the transition, the better for everybody.”

Significant work remains for Baker, who must still select a superintendent, appoint two more school board members and pick a vice chairman from among the elected members. He also must forge a good working relationship with a board that vehemently fought his plan to change the governance structure. At least two board members participated in an activist group’s failed petition drive to block the legislation from taking effect June 1.


Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Christian Rhodes, Baker’s education liaison, said a search committee could not officially begin selecting a new school superintendent until the law was official. The committee, which will recommend three candidates to Baker, plans to meet this week and is expected to release a timeline for community and stakeholder meetings.

The schools chief is responsible for day-to-day operations and has the authority to close schools and arrange for transportation for students to and from consolidated schools, according to the law.

“School closures is a potentially hot topic, but sometimes it’s a needed conversation particularly when you have underenrolled schools,” Rhodes said.

Baker has said he wants a new superintendent, a position now known as chief executive officer, before school reopens in August. Baker said he expects to announce the rest of his board appointees this month. The board has meetings scheduled through the end of June and will need to reconcile the changes the County Council made to the school budget.

“The change of the school system does not occur until a new superintendent is identified and new full hybrid board is able to put together an agenda,” Rhodes said. “That is critical to setting a pathway.”

The new law, which Baker views as vital to improving the schools and making the county more attractive for economic development, reduces the power of the elected school board and expands the role of the schools chief. It also gives the county executive a direct line into the schools.

Under the new law, the school board’s role is focused on two areas: improving student achievement and increasing community engagement. The school board maintains control of the budget, but it needs a two-thirds majority vote to overturn the schools chief’s decisions. The elected board needed a simple majority to approve the school superintendent’s recommendations.

Jacobs, who attended Eubanks’s swearing in, said that she plans to work with him to ensure a smooth transition and that she looks forward to the board’s new roles.

“I don’t want people to get sidetracked,” Jacobs said. “We have to meet the needs of middle-class families and the children that we serve in our system.”

Baker said he looks forward to sharing government resources with the school system, such as placing social workers in schools in underserved communities.

“It’s a lot of risk, but I think it’s worth it,” Baker said. “This is going to be one government. That I can guarantee.”

The bill was approved in the waning days of the state legislative session, leaving many residents criticizing the process and the proposal.

Jared Jeffries, a Bowie resident, said that the new law gives Baker too much power and that he worries that dealing with the schools could distract the county executive.

“I don’t know all of the specifics, but I understand it’s about expanding his reach,” Jeffries said. “Focus on what you were elected to do first. . . . Now you will have something else to occupy your time versus what we elected you for.”

Laura Moore, a Greenbelt resident who signed a petition to block the legislation from taking effect, said the plan was rushed.

“I just think it was too short of a time to make such a large change,” said Moore, who worked on Baker’s 2010 campaign. “If the proposed changes are such a brilliant idea, then surely they can withstand some reflection and scrutiny.”

Some state lawmakers who voted for the bill said they have received complaints from constituents.

“I’ve heard from civic and community leaders concerned about the process,” Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s) said. “[Baker] asked for our support . . . and I gave him the tools to do what needed to be done.”

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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