Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s plan to gain new powers over the county’s public schools got a failing grade at a Senate hearing Friday from a school board member, labor leaders and a PTA representative, even as legislative leaders continued to work behind the scenes to craft a bill they said would give Baker at least some of what he wants.
Baker (D), who ran on a platform of improving education in the 204-school system, is trying to persuade state lawmakers in the waning days of the legislative session to put him in charge of the schools superintendent and the system’s $1.7 billion budget.
Despite some gains in student achievement, Prince George’s continues to lag in the Washington region and is mired near the bottom in Maryland, a situation that Baker says makes it difficult to bring jobs and businesses to the county.
“The idea was to make sure we had the appropriate structure to not only pick a quality superintendent . . . but also that we could be held accountable,” Baker told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
“My thinking was to make sure the county executive and the county would be accountable.”
State lawmakers have introduced a bill that would give Baker partial control of the schools, allowing him to select and have authority over the superintendent but keeping the school system’s purse strings in the hands of the elected school board.
But that plan doesn’t get at the root causes of problems in the school system, Baker’s critics say.
“If you change the flowchart, you are rearranging the deck chairs as the ship goes down,” Kenneth M. Haines, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, the union representing teachers, said while waiting to testify. Haines is a former teacher at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville.
He was among several who told the committee that larger problems — years of county budget cuts, large class sizes and more than 70,000 students poor enough to qualify for a government-subsidized meal program — all take their toll on student achievement. Haines said Baker’s proposals do little to address that.
Baker has spent the past few days in Annapolis, shoring up support among county lawmakers, a majority of whom have said they favor changes in the school system’s governance and think Baker is on the right track.
“People want to do something,” Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s) said in an interview. Like Baker, Ivey has sent her children to county public schools.
Stumbling blocks remain among lawmakers from other jurisdictions, whose local school boards are wary. At Friday’s hearing, the Maryland Association of Boards of Education opposed Baker’s bill, which MABE President Rodger Janssen of Baltimore County said “would be disastrous” and threaten school system independence from political interference across Maryland.
Baker told the panel that in Prince George’s, having the county executive involved in the schools could enable them to get more resources in the tax-capped county. He said that he and those who might follow him in office could tap county agencies, now held at arms length by the school system, to aid the schools, whose budget is more than half of the county’s total spending plan.
“Clearly something needs to be done in Prince George’s County to improve our schools,” Baker said.
The school board chair, who has labeled Baker’s move a “power grab,” testified that the system suffers from a poor image that is undeserved.
“In reality, this school system’s performance has shown steady and consistent progress. . . . Prince George’s has made double-digit increases at every grade over a seven-year span,” said Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5).
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert), whose district includes a chunk of southern Prince George’s, sat near committee members as they heard two hours of testimony.
Miller said when the hearing broke up that he thinks that the system has improved but that progress is too slow and the county cannot afford to wait much longer.
“We turn over huge sums of money to the school board,” he said. “We need to see results.”
Miller, who will have extensive influence over the course of the debate, predicted there would be a compromise. “The county executive will want more than we are going to give him,” he said. “The other side doesn’t want to see any change. We are going to find a way to fashion a compromise.”