Md. House sends overhaul of Prince George’s school system to governor

Maryland lawmakers gave final approval Saturday to a bill restructuring the Prince George’s County school system, clearing one of the last remaining marquee measures from their agenda in advance of Monday’s planned adjournment.

The bill, which now heads to the governor, would give Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) more authority over the struggling system, including the power to select its new superintendent, but stops well short of the complete takeover he sought.

The 81 to 45 vote in the House of Delegates came amid debate on scores of bills as lawmakers moved to wrap up one of the busiest 90-day sessions in many years.

The House and Senate plan to complete work on hundreds of pieces of legislation — including measures on medical marijuana, campaign finance and early voting — during marathon meetings Monday. But the heaviest lifting is behind them.

The final votes on the state’s $37 billion budget came Friday, and most of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s priorities — including gun-control legislation, a gas-tax increase and repeal of the death penalty — have been approved. Bills have also been passed in recent days to target cyberbullying and to make limited driver’s licenses available to illegal immigrants.

This year’s relatively clear path to adjournment stands in marked contrast to the situation a year ago, when brinkmanship over the state budget and gambling legislation led to the session’s collapse on an acrimonious final night. O’Malley (D) wound up summoning lawmakers back to Annapolis for two special sessions to finish their work.

“We’ve made a conscious effort not to repeat what occurred last year,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). “All the major bills are passed. We’ve had a very productive year. . . . It’s like the Age of Aquarius. Everything came together.”

Miller’s chamber met late on Friday to avoid a Saturday session and is scheduled to reconvene early on Monday.

The House vote Saturday to give Baker partial control over Maryland’s second-largest school system followed several days of give-and-take behind the scenes.

Several key lawmakers, including House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), balked at Baker’s initial request to put him, rather than an elected school board, in charge of the superintendent and the system’s $1.7 billion budget.

The compromise measure, approved last week by the Senate, would allow Baker to select the superintendent, appoint three members to the school board and name the board chair and vice chair.

Baker, who was in Annapolis on Saturday, said the compromise plan was a step in the right direction for a system that is searching for its eighth superintendent in 14 years.

“It puts more accountability on our office,” he said. “It’s not everything we wanted but a good chunk of what we asked for.”

Only one delegate from Prince George’s — Aisha N. Braveboy (D) — voted against the bill. Most of the other opponents were Republicans, but six Democrats from Montgomery County also opposed Baker’s move.

Del. Bonnie L. Cullison (D-Montgomery) commended Baker for trying to tackle his county’s educational problems, but she disagreed with the approach.

“You can change powers and controls, but if you don’t change the programs and services that are directly impacting students, you won’t see student outcomes,” said Cullison, who served as the president of the Montgomery County teachers union for six years.

The school board and teachers union in Prince George’s vehemently fought against the plan, contending that the action was too drastic.

Among the legislation awaiting a final Senate vote Monday is a measure to authorize the distribution of medical marijuana by academic medical centers. Legislative analysts say that it is unlikely that distribution would begin before 2016 and that it is unclear how many institutions would choose to participate.

But supporters of the bill, which passed the House last month, have hailed it as a significant step toward a compassionate treatment option for people with illnesses such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.

Meanwhile, separate legislation, passed last month in the Senate, to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana has stalled in the House Judiciary Committee and appears unlikely to pass.

The bill would subject people caught with 10 grams or less to only a civil fine of $100, a move supporters say would ease criminal caseloads in the courts.

But opponents have said the measure sends a bad message.

The Senate is also expected to give final approval Monday to a bill sponsored by O’Malley to expand the number of early voting sites in Maryland.

Lawmakers will also try to resolve dueling House and Senate bills related to legal liability resulting from dog bites.

A bill that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain Maryland driver’s licenses was among the more hotly debated measures sent to O’Malley in recent days.

The measure, which won final approval in the House on Friday, would expand a program — set to expire — that makes available a second-class driver’s license to applicants without a Social Security number or proof of lawful status.

Under the bill, immigrants would have to show some form of identification, such as a birth certificate or passport. And to establish long-term Maryland residency, senators added a requirement that applicants also provide two years of state income tax filings.

Supporters said the measure would make the roads safer by allowing the state to administer written and road tests to illegal immigrants and allowing insurance companies to provide them with liability coverage.

Republican opponents of the measure tied up a final vote for hours on the House floor on Friday, arguing that the bill would make it easier for terrorists to obtain IDs, in addition to rewarding the behavior of people who entered the country illegally.

The driver’s licenses would afford undocumented immigrants almost all the privileges provided by licenses issued to citizens.

They would be the same color as regular licenses, but they would be marked as not valid for federal purposes, such as entering federal buildings and boarding commercial airline flights.

A cyberbullying bill that was sent to the governor last week was introduced after last year’s suicide of a 15-year-old Howard County girl. The girl’s family said she took her life after being harassed online.

Under the legislation, creating a fake profile, posing as a minor, posting real or doctored images of a minor and signing up a minor for a pornographic Web site would be misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail and a $500 fine.

Aaron C. Davis and Kate Havard contributed to this report.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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