Prince George’s council faults Baker’s schools plan, seeks more power over budget

March 26, 2013

Members of the Prince George’s County Council said Tuesday that they would oppose a bill in Annapolis giving the county executive control of the school system unless the council is given broader power over the education budget.

The comments were the first by council members since County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) announced this month his plan to take over the county’s school system by making the superintendent a cabinet position and assuming authority over the schools’ $1.7 billion budget.

But legislation introduced Monday in the General Assembly would give the county executive control only over the superintendent and not the budget.

During their meeting Tuesday, council members urged state lawmakers to allow them to have line-item authority over the spending plan. Currently, most of the budgeting is done by the school board, and the council is prohibited from making significant changes.

“Without fiduciary oversight as we have, as the council has for every other agency, as outlined in our charter, then we do our citizens a disservice because we have no way to have the checks and balances with our county executive,” council Chair Andrea C. Harrison (D-Springdale), who had urged her colleagues to stay silent about the issue until Tuesday, said at the meeting.

But one member, Eric Olson (D-College Park), told his colleagues that he feared a push by the council for more control over the school budget “could kill the bill” in Annapolis.

Even though the bill has been watered down from Baker’s initial proposal, some lawmakers still have concerns, especially since it was introduced with only about two weeks left in Maryland’s legislative session. And other state legislators are worried that Baker’s plan might spur other jurisdictions to ask for similar powers.

Baker has said that giving him power to hire the schools chief “is nonnegotiable” but has left open the possibility of finding a middle ground on budget concerns.

In a statement Tuesday, Baker said the council is “an important partner with a vital role to play in the education of our children. . . . There are various ideas on the table to improve school governance. The one constant from all these elected leaders is that we must do something, and we should do it now.”

Several council members said that the bill introduced in Annapolis by Sen. Douglas J. J. Peters (D-Prince George’s) would not address problems with the schools and that they needed to be able to exert more influence on school spending.

“If fiscal oversight . . . kills the bill, then it is a bad bill,” said council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-Mitchellville), a former school system employee.

He urged the council to formalize its concerns in a resolution — a move Harrison discouraged.

Del. Jolene Ivey (D), who chairs the county’s House delegation and backs Baker’s plan, said she understood the council’s concerns. She said she was trying to find a compromise that would allay the worries of those who are wary of giving too much authority to the executive.

“We are trying to get a bill that we can pass,” she said.

Council Vice Chair Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) said he was worried the debate was moving too quickly to get consensus.

“We have not had an opportunity to have a decent discussion, a policy discussion about something that is so critical to this county,” he said. “I don’t know if rushing to action so fast is going to get us to the bottom line of providing quality education in this county.”

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