Correction:

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the county Board of Education would be able to fire the superintendent. The schools chief can be removed by the state superintendent of schools, not the board. This version has been updated.

Search for Prince George’s County schools chief could be a tough assignment

Jeffrey MacMillan - Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III

As he begins the search for a new schools superintendent, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said he would consider candidates from outside education to lead the struggling $1.7 billion system, including executives in business, nonprofits and government.

In an interview, he said he was interested in school leaders from across the country who have experienced some of the challenges facing Prince George’s, but that he has also studied the nontraditional choices by mayors such as New York’s Michael Bloomberg (I), who tapped well-known lawyer Joel Klein to serve as schools chancellor in 2002.

Baker (D) was granted the authority to appoint a new schools chief by the Maryland General Assembly earlier this month. While state lawmakers did not give Baker much of what he had initially proposed — a full takeover of the school system, including control of the budget and superintendent — the ability to hire the schools chief is a responsibility that no other county executive in Maryland has.

But he will have to navigate several obstacles that could make his task more difficult, including the unusual arrangement he has been handed: Although he’ll hire the superintendent, that person will report to the school board, not him. Furthermore, the takeover bid has inflamed tensions between the county executive and the school board. Then there is the question of whether all the recent turmoil will turn off potential candidates.

And if it doesn’t work out, Baker knows there’s only one person to blame. “To make this successful, the person coming in must understand that this is now a partnership with the county executive, that their success is my success,” Baker said. “It is a test of executive authority. We are on the hot seat.”

Since he launched his takeover bid last month, Baker has been accused of usurping the school board’s authority in a surprise power grab. But he has said that nothing short of drastic change could help the school system, which has remained stuck near the bottom in student achievement in the region, with only modest gains in recent years. The superintendent he hires will be the county’s eighth in 15 years.

Since Baker took office in 2010, crime has dropped, and there has been an uptick in the local economy. But business leaders have said that without better public schools, Baker’s other key aim, luring businesses and jobs to Prince George’s, inevitably will founder.

Under the legislation passed by the General Assembly, Baker is required to make his selection from a list of three finalists that will be sent to him from a new search committee set up by the governor and the state schools chief. The legislation also allows him to appoint the school board’s chairman and vice chairman.

Alvin Crawley, the interim schools superintendent, is scheduled to depart July 1, and the search committee by law cannot begin its formal work until June 1, which could mean a temporary leader is put in place until a permanent selection is made.

Before the committee can start reviewing candidates, Baker plans to do his own recruiting. He has an obvious place to start: the list of about three dozen candidates who applied when the county’s last full-time superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., was lured away to Philadelphia. The county’s school board had whittled those candidates to three finalists when Baker announced his takeover plan, bringing the process to a halt.

Baker said he has heard from some of the original pool, who now want to be reconsidered.

The county executive plans to court other potential candidates by borrowing a technique from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D), who enlisted business leaders and members of the city’s power elite to help hire away Hite by promising public-private partnerships to bring more resources, such as tutoring and mentoring programs, to education. The lobbying helped convince Hite that the city was united behind efforts to improve the public schools.

Baker said he also hopes to enlist Prince George’s businesses, residents, educators and politicians. He will utilize members of his education commission, a shadow school board of business leaders and educators that he established last year. He has talked informally with some local officials and business leaders, such as Chamber of Commerce President David Harrington and Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable founder Jim Estepp, about helping woo candidates.

To improve the schools, Baker, who is expected to announce his 2014 reelection bid in June, said he will “open up the government” to give the new schools chief broad support. Baker hopes to find someone for whom Prince George’s is not simply a steppingstone to a bigger system, but someone who will stay for many years.

Baker said he wants to offer social services and other aid to the school system, where nearly two-thirds of the students qualify for government-subsidized meals. If the schools are able to use more government services and help from nonprofits, he said, more money can be directed to the classroom to help teachers and administrators focus on improving student achievement, he said.

Baker’s ideal candidate for superintendent of the 123,000-student system would be someone who is as comfortable in the board room as in the classroom, who understands the challenges of educating children who may come to school hungry, but who also can create programs and establish a culture of academic rigor that will attract families of all economic backgrounds.

“We have a fairly wealthy population that choose not to send their children to Prince George’s schools, ” he said. “We need someone who can engage the public and the parents and the business community.”

Bringing back families who have left the system or avoided it altogether will help give the schools — and Baker’s takeover effort — more credibility.

“We want someone who understands that in addition to inspiring the teachers, the principals, everybody in the building from the groundskeepers to the cafeteria workers, we need help in transportation, finances, in personnel,” he said. “This has to be a person . . . who has managed a complex organization.”

But some think that the county’s ability to attract top talent could be marred by the recent turmoil that surrounded Baker’s takeover bid, and the unusual compromise it yielded.

The board would be able to challenge decisions of the superintendent with a two-thirds majority. New appointees granted under the legislation — three from Baker, one from the County Council — will join a board where several of the nine incumbents vigorously opposed Baker’s plan, potentially leaving intact a resistant voting bloc.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at American Enterprise Institute, said he was unaware of a similar structure in which a schools chief is hired by one entity but reports to another.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “It puts the superintendent in an enormously difficult position.”

Kenneth Wong, an education professor at Brown University who studies school system governance, said the new structure could lead to more turmoil between Baker and the members of the school board who were against the proposal. “I worry about the creation of a voting bloc to challenge the executive, and that would create a lot of tension and policy disagreement which would create more challenges for the county as a whole. This compromise bill is leaning towards the direction of less accountability and more policy tension,” Wong said.

But Wong said he thought the new setup, while creating “divided accountability,” also could appeal to some candidates. Much, he said, will depend on whom Baker names as school board chairman and vice chairman. He said the new superintendent will play “a unique bridging role” that could help bring together disparate factions on the board and in the Baker administration.

Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators and former schools chief for Fairfax County, said the arrangement is “awkward.” But he does not expect it to harm the county’s ability to attract a top-caliber candidate.

“Prince George’s has not had difficulty in the past,” Domenech said, noting that reform-minded educators have been drawn to the county schools. Domenech said Baker might consider involving the school board in the selection process and “make it somewhat of a joint venture.”

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who played a major role in crafting a compromise bill that denied Baker the total control he sought, said Baker faces a complex task.

“He has a lot of challenges,” Busch said. “I don’t think you are going to turn around a system as large as Prince George’s quickly, no matter who you get.”

 
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