Prince George’s County superintendent finalists arrive with uncertain future

The three finalists for the job of Prince George’s County schools superintendent came to town Tuesday without assur­ances that any of them would be replacing former school superintendent William R. Hite Jr. The position is at the center of the county executive’s school takeover proposal, and it is possible county officials could scrap the current search.

With County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s move to make the superintendent a member of his cabinet — a hire that would require County Council confirmation — it is unclear what the future will hold for this set of finalists. The county Board of Education chose the candidates and hopes to fill the post.

At a forum Tuesday night, each finalist said he is committed to working in Prince George’s, regardless of who the boss is. But some at the meeting, which drew about 200 people, said it was a strange exercise.

“What superintendent is going to work in the middle of this?” said Theresa Dudley, a teacher. “The whole process has been short-circuited by [Baker’s] actions.. . . It’s not a good time.”

Tonya Lawson, a parent, described the forum as “bizarre and awkward” because the finalists were participating in an interview with the school board that might prove to be moot.

“This system is in crisis, and no one was responding to that,” Lawson said.

The finalists — Eric J. Becoats, school superintendent in Durham, N.C.; Alvin L. Crawley, the county’s interim schools chief; and Harrison A. Peters, a chief of schools in the Chicago school system — each said they had no second thoughts about the county since the takeover proposal surfaced.

Peters, who is familiar with mayoral control in Chicago, said that if Baker gets approval for his takeover and decides to reopen the search, it is beyond his control. Still, Peters said, he came to prove that he “can do good work.”

Becoats said: “Regardless of the structure, I know what my role is.”

Crawley, who has worked for the board for seven months, would not comment on the possibility that the school board could lose considerable power. He said he has had a good relationship with the county executive and hopes that “whatever decision is made, is made in the best interest of the school district.”

The finalists spent the day meeting with elected officials — including Baker — as well as union and business leaders, school employees and residents. Many of the questions focused on student achievement, community involvement and improving the image of the school system.

Baker (D) announced his school takeover plans on Sunday, just two days before the finalists were scheduled to appear at the forum.

In a move similar to those taken by mayors in cities across the country, including the District and New York, Baker is pushing state legislation that would allow him to take the reins of the school system.

Baker said this week that he might begin the superintendent search anew.

“I just think we can’t afford to get it wrong,” he said. “We have to try to get someone who is going to make progress but is going to stay here for the long haul.”

Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5), who chairs the school board, said that even though the board plans to continue the interview process, it would not offer a contract to a candidate until the takeover bid is settled by the General Assembly. Its legislative session is expected to end April 8.

Jacobs said it was unfortunate that the finalists were put in a position of interviewing for a job while not knowing who their boss might be, or whether they will ultimately be contenders for the position.

“We intend to be upfront with them, tell them the situation, but we would not offer a contract to an individual knowing that we could be jeopardizing their welfare, uprooting their family,” she said.

The selection of a superintendent is crucial for Prince George’s as many elected officials, parents, and civic and business leaders have pinned much of their hope for the county’s future on the turnaround of the school system.

Regardless of who chooses the superintendent, the next schools leader will step into a system that is working to implement Common Core standards, reform its teacher-evaluation process and improve student achievement.

While the 123,000-student system has made significant strides, including improvements on state test scores and the implementation of successful educational reforms, it continues to lag behind many other systems in the region. It also faces dwindling enrollment, a continued lack of public trust and an increase in the number of students from low-income families.

Some people interviewed at Tuesday’s forum said they were impressed with the board’s slate of finalists. Others had mixed feelings.

“I’m not ready to say that we may have the very best yet,” said County Council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington).

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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