Prince George’s school board censures member

Carletta Fellows, one of the newest members of the Prince George’s County Board of Education, campaigned as an outsider, someone who would fight against the status quo and fix a broken school system by pushing for transparency.

Since taking office in December, Fellows said, she has worked to live up to those promises. She has raised questions about the administration’s handling of the budget, the board’s awarding of contracts and its decisions to discuss certain issues in closed-door sessions.

But not everyone has seen her moves as best for the school system. She has been labeled an obstructionist for her frequent questions at meetings and requests for additional documentation before often voting no or abstaining.

Her outspokenness has not only irked her colleagues, but it also has resulted in the board taking the unusual step of privately censuring her.

The board took the action during an executive session in late January.

Board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5) did not respond to calls about the vote against Fellows or what the board considered to be improper conduct. Briant Coleman, a spokesman for the board, said he was unaware of the action.

The censure has not caused Fellows to back down.

“I’m going to ask questions, and it may be uncomfortable for some people,” Fellows said in a recent interview. “I don’t care if you don’t like my tone. I’m doing my due diligence for District 7.”

At least one other board member has been privately reprimanded. In 2011, board member Edward Burroughs III (District 8) was censured for visiting a high school to investigate a truancy complaint.

Although the board, which is searching for a permanent superintendent, has tried to keep the tension behind closed doors, the acrimony took center stage during last month’s board meeting.

Before the board voted on the proposed budget, Fellows read a long statement that included a series of questions that she wanted to become part of the public record.

“When you subtract what was in the proposed FY 2014 operating budget book from the comprehensive annual financial report, the difference is $354,208,419,” Fellows said. “Therefore, I raise the question for the public record: Is there hundreds of millions of dollars that will be expended in FY 2014 which will not be disclosed to the public? . . . Which will not be reviewed and approved by the county executive and the County Council?”

She ended her remarks by saying she could not vote for the budget because there was a “lack of disclosure and transparency.”

Budget officials said Fellows was comparing different accounts.

Board member Peggy Higgins (District 2) appeared annoyed.

“I take great offense to Ms. Fellows’ questions that are accusatory, spread false information and clearly communicate that you are confused, unknowledgeable and . . .” Higgins said before being interrupted by Fellows.

“I think this is very inappropriate,” Fellows said. “If I am confused, let me get clarity. It is my fiduciary responsibility. This is what I was elected to do.”

The two went on trading barbs before Higgins chastised Fellows for not attending any of the three work sessions on the budget, where she said Fellows’s questions could have been addressed.

Fellows, a former teacher in Prince George’s who has worked as a legislative director for a state delegate and a policy adviser for a County Council member, is an educational programmer for a foundation that serves foster children.

She unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the school board in 2006, then defeated incumbent Henry P. Armwood Jr. last year.

Board members privately have said that they are concerned about Fellows’s statements, which raise questions about whether the board is following proper procedures and providing the required oversight of the administration.

They question her use of a “brain trust,” people who board members say write the long statements she makes during board meetings.

Fellows said that because the board does not have the staff to go over documents and make suggestions about the budget or policies, she has sought out friends and former campaign volunteers who are lawyers and who have backgrounds in budget analysis to provide assistance.

Some members said they worry that any sign that the board is not unified — or that it is not functioning properly — could hurt the search for a superintendent or falsely lend credence to state lawmakers’ effort to create a task force to study the composition and operations of the school board. Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s), the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation is not intended to criticize the board or its work but to address residents’ concerns about academic achievement.

Fellows, who has abstained or voted against more measures than she has approved, said she has had reasons to raise objections.

She voted against the school system’s plan to partner with Junior Achievement to teach financial literacy to eighth-graders because it was unclear whether other nonprofits had been extended a chance to bid or whether any others offered similar programs.

She was the only member to vote against the board’s introduction of the proposal for the school system to take ownership of work created by students and staff members. Fellows asked whether there would be discussion on the copyright agenda item. Although the board had discussed the proposal in its policy review committee and was presenting it to the public, when there wasn’t any discussion, Fellows voted against it.

“I’m looked at like I’m an obstructionist,” Fellows said. “I’m looking at the inconsistencies. I’m not doing this in a vacuum.”

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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