Prince George’s county executive moves to take over struggling school system

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III is planning a takeover of the county’s struggling school system, seeking state legislation that would put him in charge of the school superintendent and $1.7 billion budget while significantly reducing the power of the elected Board of Education.

Should Baker (D) succeed, it would mark a dramatic shift in power and result in a hybrid of the restructurings that have taken place in big cities across the country, such as the District and New York, where reform-minded executives have wrested control of embattled school systems.

(Mark Gail/The Washington Post) - Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker

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Should Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker take over the county’s school system?

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The proposal comes after years of turmoil in Maryland’s second-largest school system, which has seen rapid turnover of its superintendents and only modest improvement in student performance as it languishes near the bottom of statewide rankings.

Although Prince George’s is one of the wealthiest predominantly African American counties in America — and neighboring Montgomery and Howard counties have what are considered elite systems — its schools have struggled with performance and politics.

Events in recent months have highlighted the problems facing county schools. In September, William R. Hite Jr. — the county’s fifth superintendent in 10 years — left to become Philadelphia’s schools chief. Other top administrators soon departed. In the meantime, one member of the Board of Education was found to be serving on the board illegally; the board censured a new member for her outspoken criticisms; and parents, other residents and state lawmakers have raised questions about transparency and the ability of the board — most of whose members do not have college degrees — to lead the 123,000-student system.

In recent months, parents have also complained about their children being picked up late for school because of a shortage of bus drivers and about changes in transportation policy.

Baker, who says good schools are crucial to luring new residents and promoting economic development, has been critical of the system’s progress. An immediate and permanent change is required, Baker said in a recent interview.

“I clearly didn’t think the structure we had in the school system worked from the first day I came in here,” Baker said. “But I wanted to try as hard as I could from an executive standpoint — not from a legislative standpoint like I did in years past — to see, in fact, if you could bring the bully pulpit of the county executive’s office and force change that way.

“You can do it, but you can only take it so far,” Baker said. “I think in order to have real sustained change that will outlast this administration, you’ve got to restructure it.”

Baker said he is moving forward with the proposed takeover now because the school system is looking to hire a superintendent and he believes that residents should have someone — the county executive — to hold accountable for the schools. If approved, the new structure would give the next superintendent immensely more power, as that person would answer directly to the county executive, county officials said.

There are three finalists for the job of superintendent, who are expected to appear at a community meeting Tuesday. Baker, who did not interview the finalists, said the search process should be reopened if “we determine one of the three is not the best individual. . . . I just think we can’t afford to get it wrong.”

There was mixed reaction among state officials in Annapolis, whose approval Baker needs to proceed with his plan.

State Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D), chairman of the county’s Senate delegation, said he wonders whether restructuring would yield academic improvements.

State Sen. Joanne Benson (D-Prince George’s), a former school administrator and the delegation’s liaison for education, described Baker’s plan as “a good fit,” one that will increase accountability.

“I think that a change is needed,” she said. “We also need a facelift for the reputation of our school system. . . . I don’t have a problem with [the superintendent] becoming a cabinet-level position.”

Closer to home, Baker is likely to face a power struggle with echoes of the past. In 2002, when he was a state delegate, he led a successful effort to dissolve the county’s elected school board, which was replaced by an appointed board, named by the governor and the county executive. After public outcry, the county reverted to an elected board in 2006.

The school board has tried to restore public trust in the system, which for years was embroiled in scandal before the General Assembly dissolved the elected board. But despite slight gains in standardized test scores, the school system continues to be embroiled in controversy.

The school board’s chairman, Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5), said she could not comment without seeing a copy of the legislation.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former chief executive of the Chicago school system, has said that school boards of persistently struggling systems have a “moral obligation” to consider mayoral control.

Then-D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty turned the District’s troubled school system into a widely scrutinized experiment in urban education reform when he took over in 2007. His move led to the dissolution of the elected school board and the installation of a powerful chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, who made national headlines as she moved rapidly to close schools and fire ineffective teachers and central-office workers.

Rhee had broad, near-unilateral authority to manage the schools, which supporters of mayoral control say allowed her to do what the old school board — mired in politics and partisanship — had failed to do: establish a functioning bureaucracy that could deliver textbooks on time, complete much-needed building renovations and bring new urgency to the task of improving education.

Rhee also overhauled teacher evaluations, linking job security and pay to student performance on standardized tests, and she persuaded the teachers union to give up job protections in return for higher pay.

The changes — celebrated by some, reviled by others — remain controversial and unproven. The District’s traditional public schools have shown modest improvement in student proficiency, but graduation rates are still among the lowest in the country. And the city’s traditional public schools are struggling to keep pace with public charter schools, which have enjoyed surging enrollment and are poised to have a majority of the city’s students in coming years.

Unlike the District takeover, Baker’s proposal would keep the elected school board intact. But the panel would not hire or oversee the superintendent. Instead, the schools chief would become a cabinet-level position, appointed by Baker and confirmed by the County Council. The county executive and council would oversee the school system’s budget and capital programs. More than half of the county’s budget goes to support the schools.

The board would continue to hold hearings, but it would focus almost entirely on academic policy and parental engagement, Baker said. It would have the ability to move funding up or down by 1 percent in any major category of the school budget, similar to the council’s current role, county officials said.

The elected nine-member board would gain six members, including three with voting privileges: a county executive appointee with education experience, a council appointee from the business community and the president of the Parent Teacher Association. Three nonvoting, ex-officio members would come from Prince George’s Community College, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland at College Park.

Bob Ross, president of the county branch of the NAACP, said he is “totally opposed” to the proposal because it “puts me in the mind of what they did in D.C., and I just can’t go along with that.”

County officials said the takeover would allow the government to coordinate resources with the school system, potentially sending more money to the classrooms. “This is about every single child getting the best education possible,” Baker said.

The county executive said the proposal is also designed to clearly define the role of the school board, which has given Baker “pushback” over his efforts to become involved in public education: making weekly visits to schools, forming an education commission to advise him on ways to improve county schools; and naming Hite to the transition team after Baker’s election more than two years ago.

“There was hesitance of [Hite] being on the transition team of the incoming county executive because they felt like he was putting himself before the board,” Baker said. “Well, they are the policy arm. . . . I don’t think they were doing it because they didn’t want a relationship with us. I think they were doing it because they don’t understand the roles.”

Hite said he did not want to offer an opinion about what might or might not work in Prince George’s because he no longer works for the county. But he said he had a good working relationship with Baker and has seen the benefits of the structure in Philadelphia, where there is “no light between the school district and the mayor’s office.”

“We have access to all of their department resources, and they have access to all of us,” Hite said. “It provides for clearer channels of communication.”

Baker, who realizes good schools are key to the county’s prosperity, said the county has made significant strides in areas over which he and the council have control: public safety and economic development.

“We are attracting major development here,” Baker said. “You look at public safety, it’s going in the right direction. The only thing that is outside of our ability is education, and given the fact that we will have a new superintendent, and if you are going to do something, to me this is the time that you do it.”

Emma Brown and Miranda S. Spivack contributed to this report.

 
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