A government watchdog group says the Prince George’s County school system “crossed a line” when a schools official sent an e-mail late Monday that urged residents to join a petition drive that opposes the county’s new school governance structure.
The school system sent the e-mail to parents and community leaders in District 6, informing them of a Citizens for an Elected Board meeting to discuss circulating a petition that opposes giving County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) new powers. The petition is intended to block legislation, effective June 1, that gives Baker III the ability to select a new school superintendent, name three new school board members and select the board’s chair and vice chair.
Members of Citizens for an Elected Board want the issue to go to a referendum in 2014. The county Board of Education has largely opposed the measure, but school system officials had not previously commented on the petition drive.
“It’s very shocking that they would forward an e-mail from an activist group,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “There has to be a line there between the government and the activist. . . . A governmental entity does not have the right to engage in activism of this nature. By forwarding the e-mail, they have crossed that line.”
Shauna Battle, deputy general counsel for the school system, said she could not comment on the e-mail, which was sent by an employee in the communications department. Spokesmen for the school system did not return calls seeking comment.
Barry Hudson, a spokesman for Baker, declined to comment on the e-mail.
“Our focus is to move forward on the legislation that was voted on in Annapolis, finding a superintendent, identifying board members and making sure the schools are improving at a more rapid pace,” Hudson said.
Deborah Sell, who is leading the petition drive, said her group is concerned about how the bill, which was amended in the final days of the legislative session, passed the General Assembly, and the amount of power the superintendent, who will be called the chief executive officer, will have over the school system.
Baker’s original proposal, which would have put him in charge of the schools chief and the school system’s $1.7 billion budget, was similar to reform efforts that gave mayors control of schools in several major U.S. cities, including the District and New York. The law that passed was a watered down version that has still drawn criticism.
The group, which plans to hold an organizing meeting Thursday night, will need more than 8,000 signatures by May 31 to block the legislation. The petitioners would need 23,195 signatures, or 10 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election, by June 30 to place the issue on the November 2014 general election ballot.
“We are not going to let [Baker] get away with it this time as he tries to make himself czar of our school system,” Dave Cahn and Jan Hagey, the co-chairs of Citizens for an Elected Board, wrote in the e-mail. “We don’t need partisan politics dictating the education of our children. We don’t need a superintendent, hand-picked by Baker, who can close schools and change boundaries with no public input.”
Cahn said his group asked residents to forward the e-mail but that he did not ask the school system.
“That’s strange at the very least,” Cahn said. “But I don’t mind. I don’t see any reason why elected officials or an elected body can’t favor or oppose legislation that affects it.”
Sell said she was surprised when the president of the teachers union forwarded the e-mail to her on Monday.“You do need to fight back, but the way they went about it was probably not the smartest thing to do,” Sell said.
Supporters of Baker’s school takeover plan raised questions about the school system’s support of the petition drive and the dissemination of the e-mail.
“It’s inappropriate. Who is making that call?,” Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s) said. “They have enough work on their hands, if you asked me. . . . Sending out that kind of thing, it’s just wrong.”