School board willing to reopen superintendent search to fend off critics

April 1, 2013

Prince George’s school board chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs said Monday that the board would reopen the search for a new superintendent if that would fend off a proposed takeover plan under consideration in Annapolis.

“We are still ready and willing to look at this superintendent process again,”Jacobs told a joint hearing of the Prince George’s House and Senate delegations. “Let’s get rid of the elephant in the room.”

It was the first concession that Jacobs has made in the battle over County Executive Rushern L. Baker’s III plan to take over the school system. The unexpected announcement comes after school officials were closing in on picking the county’s next superintendent, which would be the eighth in 14 years.

The nine-member board met last month in a marathon weekend session, narrowing a list of 10 finalists to three, including interim superintendent Alvin L. Crawley, whose contract ends June 30.

During Monday’s hearing, Kenneth Haines, the teachers’ union president, said he also was willing to discuss reopening the superintendent search.

In an interview outside the hearing room, Baker said he “was pleased to hear” the school board’s stance.

“It shows that we are moving forward,” he said.

Baker had said previously that he might reopen the search if he receives control of the system.

Jacobs’s offer came as lawmakers raised pointed questions about school system performance, with several suggesting that they are unsatisfied with the pace of progress. The 123,000-student school system ranks near the bottom in Maryland and lags behind neighboring Fairfax and Montgomery counties in the Washington area.

The school board has vehemently opposed Baker’s proposal, which would put the county executive in charge of hiring the superintendent and also give him control of the $1.7 billion school system budget.

“This is about money and power, not what is good for children,” said Theresa Dudley Mitchell, a teacher and a parent of a student at Suitland High.

Tawana R. Lane, head of the English department at Friendly High School, said Baker’s proposal skirted the major challenges facing the school system. “There is nothing in here about the resources that are lacking. We don’t have the resources that other systems do.”

Baker has said that he is seeking the governance change because he has lost patience with the slow improvement of student achievement in the county’s 204 public schools. He said is willing to be accountable for future progress if he can gain control of the system.

Baker’s proposal is similar to actions taken in big cities across the country, including the District and New York City, where mayors have seized control of troubled public school systems.

Last week, state lawmakers introduced a watered-down version of Baker’s plan, offering a bill that would give him partial control. Under the legislation, Baker would select and have control over the superintendent. But the elected school board, which would add several new appointed members, would continue to have the final say over how the school system’s money is spent.

Under the bill, the school board could not interfere with the superintendent’s day-to-day management of the school system unless it voted by a two-thirds margin to take the action. Baker’s appointee to the school board would also have to vote in favor of the action.

Since last week, Baker (D) has been lobbying lawmakers to amend the bill to grant him more of the authority he originally sought. Many have worried about passing a law that would give him more power than any other county executive in the state and the message it would send to other school boards.

Some of his critics have challenged Baker for rushing his proposal through the General Assembly, which is scheduled to adjourn Monday. He said the lawmakers are accustomed to making swift decisions about major issues.

“A child can’t wait a single day for a quality education,” Baker said.

Monday’s public hearing was the second in less than a week. On Friday, numerous opponents testified before a Senate committee that Baker’s plan did not provide a solution for the problems that face the school system, including overcrowded classes and a growing student population from poor families. More than half of the students are eligible to receive free and reduced-price meals.

But Baker, who ties the success of the school system to the county’s economic progress, has maintained that even though the school system has shown progress, the improvements have not happened fast enough. Behind the scenes, legislative leaders have been working to try to find a compromise bill that would give Baker some of what he is seeking.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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