Pr. George’s delegation backs schools shift, but full takeover bid falls short


Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
April 3, 2013

A compromise bill to alter the leadership of the Prince George’s County school system won a key approval Wednesday in Annapolis, but the measure falls far short of the sweeping changes County Executive Rushern L. Baker III proposed in his bid to take over the schools.

Baker (D) made an aggressive late-session push to wrest control of the school system’s $1.7 billion budget and its superintendent from the county’s elected school board, arguing that the struggling schools impede economic growth and that a single authority needs to be accountable. Although he asked for direct control over the superintendent and the budget, Baker ended up with a bill that gives him neither.

Still, the county’s state Senate delegation gave Baker more power over the school system than is given in most jurisdictions in Maryland, including the ability to hire a superintendent and to appoint three members of a reconfigured 13-member Board of Education. Baker’s original plan for total control was watered down during negotiations with lawmakers — including House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) — who worried that Baker’s proposal would set a statewide precedent that could affect other systems.

The new plan, approved by a 7 to 1 vote, takes the hiring of the system’s next superintendent out of the purview of the elected board and allows Baker to choose the board’s chairman and vice chairman, giving him more influence over the school system than any county executive in the state has. But the Board of Education would retain ultimate control of the budget, and with a two-thirds majority, it could challenge the superintendent and become involved in day-to-day schools operations.

Although the bill would increase some of Baker’s influence, his move was a risky political gamble that came up short of his expectations, as he told county residents that he wanted to lead a complete schools makeover. Many of the changes at the top are administrative, and what kind of reform is possible will largely be tied to Baker’s choice for superintendent and that person’s relationship with the board.

State Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), the delegation’s lone vote against the bill, said that Baker was trying to do too much too quickly at the end of the General Assembly session.

“I think the miscalculation was three weeks left . . . and thinking this was a local bill, but it really had statewide implications,” Muse said. “These are massive changes. This is a matter of great magnitude that is going to affect us for years to come.”

Baker took the risk because he thinks that the schools are a key element to the county’s success and that even modest improvement could allow officials to lure businesses and residents. Although the schools have improved slightly, they still lag behind counties in the Washington region that Prince George’s would like to compete against.

And in recent years, the system has struggled with infighting and politics, going through seven superintendents in the past 14 years and turmoil on the board, including several times censuring its own members.

Baker touted the changes and said he is eager to take on the challenge of improving the schools. He also said he is optimistic that he can make far-reaching changes in the 204-school system despite not attaining the power he wanted.

“For the first time, the county executive . . . will have responsibility for improving education in Prince George’s County,” Baker after the Senate delegation approved the measure.

The bill next must move through the full Senate and then will go to the House, where approval is expected this week. An emergency measure, the bill would take effect as soon as the governor signs it into law.

Board of Education Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5), who has called Baker’s action a “power grab,” said that despite Baker’s promises to improve the schools, the legislation fails to include a plan to address student achievement.

“What are the reform efforts?” Jacobs asked. “We’re talking about moving adults around, but what are we going to do for the children? I haven’t heard that yet.”

Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the county’s Senate delegation, said that he expects there to be initial friction between Baker and the board but that he thinks the new structure will lead to positive changes.

“I think the more people we have engaged, the better,” Peters said.

But Peters also offered Baker words of caution: “I’ve told him over and over again: ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ ”

Baker’s takeover plan, which he unveiled nearly three weeks ago when the General Assembly was nearing adjournment, angered the school board, whose members have complained that it is reminiscent of his efforts, as a state delegate in 2002, to dismantle the elected board and replace it with appointees.

Baker said his proposal this year stemmed from a number of frustrations, including his inability to influence the selection of a new superintendent. He also said he had struggled with the school system over targeting resources to schools in high-poverty communities. “We could help them,” he said.

Parents and educators said they were unsure how the legislation will affect the school system and academic achievement. Curtis Valentine, a parent who supported Baker’s takeover plan, said the bill does not go far enough.

“I was looking for a full takeover, a very bold response to a very troubled system,” said Valentine, who has a child enrolled in pre-kindergarten at John Hanson Montessori in Oxon Hill. “I have concerns over whether this compromise bill will give the county executive the power to hold the school system accountable both financially and with academic results.”

One teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions are continuing, said he wasn’t sure that the new bill addresses much in the classroom. “I don’t know what Baker is going to do different in terms of curriculum and policy upgrading.”

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), whose district includes part of Prince George’s, has been helping Baker with the legislation and called it “a major step forward” that could help Baker attract and retain a powerhouse superintendent who can make changes in the struggling system. But he said he would have liked to have seen Baker get more authority. “This is our last, best chance,” Miller said.

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, said that Baker might have come up “with half a loaf” — with more accountability that could lead to political liability.

“Suppose there is no improvement or things get worse — he’s exposed to the criticism,” Crenson said. “It’s an enormous risk.”

Baker said he accepts that risk.

“Whoever is the leader of the county should be accountable for every operation of government,” Baker said. “If it doesn’t work out, people will know who to blame.”

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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