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With crime down and jobs up, Baker turns his attention to Prince George’s schools

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They lined up at the microphone at a community meeting one recent evening to give their to-do list to Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III. It was the usual suburban fare: sidewalks, sewers, safety. But one issue kept coming up: What was Baker planning to do about the ailing public schools?

Baker, who ran in 2010 on a promise to address corruption in county government, promote economic development, improve public safety and revamp the public school system, was not pleased. He thought by now residents would have understood how important it is to him to boost public schools.

He quickly sent an e-mail via smartphone to several top aides sitting in the audience: If people can’t feel the change, there is a problem. “That must change,” Baker warned.

At the midpoint of his first term as county executive, Baker (D) can cite many improvements. His county of 900,000 residents has been enjoying a substantial reduction in all kinds of crime, including a dramatic drop in homicides. He won passage of a new law that expands the county’s ethics office to probe government wrongdoing, a coda to the arrest and conviction of his predecessor Jack B. Johnson (D) on bribery and corruption charges.

Baker’s $50 million grant and loan fund to attract businesses is beginning to show results. He has secured a commitment from state officials for a $600 million regional hospital in Prince George’s.

But when it comes to the 120,000-student school system, Baker has been repeatedly frustrated. There have been five superintendents in 10 years, with the most recent departing in the summer. Test scores for many students continue to lag behind the rest of the state, despite some signs of improvement.

“We do a lot of good things every day in the schools,” Baker tells audiences. “But we need to do them everywhere, every day.”

As he enters his third year in office — the year that he will probably be gearing up to run for reelection in 2014 — Baker thinks the success of the school system is crucial to his attempts to reposition the county as an economic powerhouse in the Washington region. The county executive technically has no role in supervising the school system — that is the job of the nine-member school board — but Baker has decided he cannot afford to hold back. He plans to be involved in selecting a superintendent and is searching for new academic programs and new ways to help students.

“If we don’t . . . then the rest of what we are doing is not working,” he said in a recent interview.

Upgrading the schools also means repairing crumbling buildings and boosting teacher pay, no small undertaking in the $1.6 billion system whose budget and per pupil spending is still less than what is spent by its more successful neighbors in Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

Although Baker has secured increases in school spending from the County Council and the General Assembly in his two years in office, the schools are still stuck near the bottom in Maryland in student achievement. This year, there were months of political turmoil in the school board elections that nearly led to the ouster by voters of the incumbent school board chairwoman. The fourth superintendent in 10 years resigned.

“It was a time of chaos,” said Christian Rhodes, Baker’s education aide.

Baker has already taken steps, using his Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative, to send resources to communities that share certain characteristics: high crime, low income, mediocre student achievement. He is trying to infuse the neighborhoods with help from the county, including boosting social service programs, anti-crime efforts, and trying to create jobs. Addressing social needs, he thinks, leads to better results in the schools.

“People need to feel it is a priority of this administration,” he said.

Baker also has named a special commission on education that some say ultimately might prove to be a shadow school board. Another Baker ally, Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s) has introduced a bill in the General Assembly to review how school board members are selected, raising the specter of reviving an appointed board that Baker helped establish a decade ago when he was in the legislature.

He backed several board members in this year’s elections, and has tried to include them in his attempts to seek school reforms. The goal, said Rhodes, is to show prospective superintendents “that there is someone who can lend stability to the school system.”

In the end, it is the County Council, not Baker, who has the final say over the school system’s budget. To influence that process, Baker also has been working on establishing his own reliable voting bloc on the council, where members already are supportive of school reform but have generally shied away from exerting much oversight, worried about political boundaries.

“Nobody wants to be seen as the county executive or the County Council that is trying to disrupt education,” said Doris Reed, head of the county principals union. “But the school board has to come to them any time they want to make any changes. The executive and the council can do more than they do, but politically they haven’t wanted to.”

Schools spokesman Briant Coleman defended the system, saying it has made strides in recent years and that it “is headed in the right direction.”

“Our test scores continue to rise,” he said. “Time and time again, national studies show that our SAT and ACT performance and participation have increased. The quality of our teachers and staff has drastically improved.”

School board chairwoman Verjeana Jacobs, whom Baker backed for reelection, said she is eager to find ways to improve the school system, and is willing to work with Baker.

“We have our problems that we have to own, but the hardest part for me in this work is how do you acknowledge what is wrong and then not just wallow in it, but pull up your bootstraps to do the work?” she said.

“We could literally be the poster child for reform. It is better to work together,” she said.

Whether Baker’s focus on the public schools ultimately will make a difference might not be clear for some time. But placing the issue high on his agenda, and putting his political muscle behind it, could pay off.

That is what happened when he pressed in his first year for ethics legislation, even though he had to fend off complaints from political leaders including former county executive Wayne K. Curry (D), a close ally, that he was harming the county’s reputation by calling attention to problems that were not of his making.

“People feel this government is honest,” Baker said. “You could not say that the first six months, the first year I was here,” he said.

He has similar success on gaming. Although he faced opposition from many residents and religious leaders, he campaigned vigorously for the measure, which was approved statewide and now makes Prince George’s eligible for a Las Vegas-style casino. Baker isn’t a gambler, but he pushed for a high-end casino at National Harbor because he said it could turn the struggling development on the Potomac into a destination resort that could generate more tax revenue, which he can direct to the schools.

He is pushing for other businesses and federal installations, including the FBI, to relocate to the county, and technology companies along the Route 1 corridor near the University of Maryland. His $50 million economic development fund, which council members initially resisted as giving too much power to the executive, has issued several grants and loans, bringing in several hundred new jobs to the county. And he pushed for an accelerated permitting system to ease the way for businesses and development, despite protests from some residents who say he is risking creating traffic headaches and overcrowding the schools.

“We are realistic about the fact that there are a lot of hurdles we have to overcome in Prince George’s County,” he said. “We want to make sure people follow all the rules, but we don’t want to put so much of a burden on folks that they don’t want to come here.”

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