When Rushern Baker campaigned for the office of Prince George’s county executive, even some supporters worried he wasn’t sufficiently tough and ruthless.
Would the candidate with the big smile and conciliatory manner be willing to push through the changes necessary to move the county forward?
Rest assured, everyone. Baker’s surprise bid this week to strip the county’s elected Board of Education of its most important powers dispels any doubts about his readiness to play hardball.
Baker quietly lined up support beforehand in the Annapolis legislature, although he may have waited too late in the session to get the full proposal approved. He sprang the plan on the school board — and the public — just in time to throw into turmoil the final stage of the panel’s most important responsibility: picking a new superintendent.
While his tactics are coldblooded, at least Baker is applying them to a worthy cause. His initiative forces Prince George’s to address the reality that the small-time politicians typically elected to the nine-member school board have too often proved to be parochial and short of vision. They haven’t provided the leadership to transform a 123,000-student system as the ambitious county expects.
“I truly think we’re asking too much of our school board,” said Del. Jolene Ivey (D), chairman of the Prince George’s delegation in the House, who supports Baker’s proposal.
“We’re paying these people $18,000 a year. Most of them have to have an additional job,” Ivey said. “You’re asking people to have 1½ jobs, manage a $1.7 billion budget, and focus on parental engagement and academic policy. Now come on — how much can you expect people to do?”
Baker’s proposal would shift the board’s authority to select and oversee the superintendent to himself and future county executives. The board’s responsibilities would shrink to curriculum, other academic planning and parental engagement.
The school board’s shortcomings are the elephant in the room that few in Prince George’s want to acknowledge publicly. Despite the lack of discussion, it’s a fact that both of the previous superintendents — Bill Hite and John Deasy — were intensely frustrated by the board’s meddling over minor personnel matters and its challenges dealing with major budget issues.
For instance, individual board members would go directly to the superintendent with a constituent’s complaint about a teacher or other school staff member without first vetting the grievance through normal channels. (State legislators are also offenders.)
Such behavior contributed to Hite’s and Deasy’s decisions to leave the system after relatively short tenures. That, in turn, led to damaging instability at the top.
The problem arises partly because school board positions tend to attract community activists who care a lot about the schools but don’t necessarily have the expertise or experience needed to oversee a major system.
“You’re talking about a $1.7 billion budget. You can’t put that in the hands of someone whose fundraising acumen is around selling cookies. It doesn’t translate,” said an individual familiar with the board who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue is politically sensitive.
Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) said the issue was reaching a climax now partly because of concerns that the board isn’t up to the task of making the best choice for superintendent. The board recently narrowed the search to three finalists, but Baker’s bombshell could mean the hunt is reopened.
“There’s some question of confidence in the Board of Education to make a good choice,” Pinsky said. Noting that only a couple of members work professionally in education, he said, “Few have ongoing experience sitting around the table with other superintendents, either in the county or the state.”
Improving the schools in Prince George’s will require much more than giving the superintendent a different boss. Nobody’s figured out how to raise student performance adequately in poor, urban neighborhoods, like some in Prince George’s inside the Beltway. The county also will need to relax the cap on property taxes to obtain more money for education.
Still, given the board’s persistent weaknesses, Baker’s plan is a necessary first step. Sometimes politicians must turn callous to serve the greater good.
I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.