Prince George’s school board rejects two state proposals

The Prince George’s County Board of Education voted Thursday night to oppose a state bill that would require artificial turf fields at all high schools in the county and another measure that would create a task force to study the composition of the school board.

Board members questioned the timing of the proposals, put forth by three state legislators, the motivation behind them and the board’s need to focus on finding a permanent superintendent, among other issues. Former schools chief William R. Hite left in September for a job in Philadelphia.

Funding for the fiscal 2014 budget is also of primary concern. Last month, a study revealed that the county needs $2.13 billion to address a backlog of repairs and renovations at its 184 school buildings. An additional $715 million is needed over 10 years to deal with aging buildings.

“We have more pressing construction needs,” said board member Edward Burroughs III (District 8). “We have leaky roofs. We have outdated boilers.”

Interim Superintendent Alvin Crawley said he agreed with the recommendation of the board to oppose the artificial turf fields, noting that installation would cost the school system about $18 million. The bill requires that the new fields be in place by 2018.

Board member Donna Hathaway Beck (District 9) said the $18 million price tag for the athletic fields does not include the cost of maintenance, which the school system would also have to cover.

“If our board had recommended this bill to Annapolis, we would have been seen as foolish,” Beck said.

David L. Cahn, co-chairman of Citizens for an Elected Board, a group that pushed to get rid of the county’s appointed school board, called the bill to study the composition of the board a precursor to replacing it with an appointed panel.

Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D), the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation is a response to residents’ concerns about the county’s public school system, which has made academic gains in the past several years but is outpaced by other area school systems in testing and graduation rates. Valentino-Smith has said the bill is not a criticism of the current board or designed to usurp its authority.

The task force would study and make recommendations on the qualifications and compensation of board members; the methods for selecting members; the racial and gender diversity of the board; the criteria for accountability, oversight and outcomes; and a protocol for board audits; and addressing audit findings.

Cahn called it a first step to “taking away our schools.” He asked the board to vote against the proposal “if you believe in yourselves [and] if you believe in democracy.”

The structure of the board has changed three times in the past decade: It went from district elections to at-large appointments to at-large elections and back to district elections, its current format.

Board of Education Chairman Verjeana Jacobs (District 4), who said she does not necessarily oppose the idea of a task force, said Friday that she continues to be concerned about the proposed makeup of the panel. She would like to see residents and experts who can discuss student achievement participate in discussions. “Make it meaningful,” she said.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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