June 29, 2013

OF MARYLAND’S major school districts, only Baltimore ranks lower than Prince George’s County, according to most measures. While Prince George’s has made some strides, improving test scores and teacher quality in the last decade, it has been ill-served by an inept and meddlesome school board that has hired some bad superintendents, driven away good ones and alienated increasing numbers of middle-class county residents. Incredibly, the county has gone through eight schools chiefs in 14 years, includingAndre Hornsby, who was sent to federal prison for corruption.

That sorry record, and the plain fact that county residents deserve better, provided the political punch that enabled the county executive, Rushern I. Baker III, to wrest some control of the system from the school board this year. Chief among the new powers that state lawmakers granted Mr. Baker was the exclusive ability to hire the superintendent to run the 123,000-student system, the nation’s 18th-largest.

On Thursday, Mr. Baker announced his choice: Kevin Maxwell, a seasoned, highly regarded former teacher, principal and administrator in Prince George’s and Montgomery county schools and, for the last seven years, superintendent of the neighboring school district in Anne Arundel County. It is an excellent selection.

Mr. Maxwell, who attended Prince George’s schools, is a known quantity whose broad experience suggests he has a fighting chance to navigate the perilous politics between Mr. Baker, a highly fractious school board, understandably anxious parents and the schools’ nearly 18,000 employees, among other interested parties.

As someone who has lived in the county for years, he presumably grasps how tightly tethered its economic fortunes are to the schools’ performance. Simply put, without significant improvements in the schools, Prince George’s will continue to struggle to compete with wealthier suburban neighbors to attract the best brains, talent and jobs.

As superintendent in Anne Arundel and, before that, as a senior administrator in Montgomery and Prince George’s, Mr. Maxwell has applied a deft touch in schools and regions whose populations were highly diverse. He’ll need those skills in his new job, where some in the overwhelmingly African American system are likely to regard Mr. Maxwell skeptically because of his race (he is white).

It is critical that the school board give Mr. Maxwell the space to do his job, which includes managing a $1.7 billion budget and more than 200 schools. Previous county superintendents have complained that they spent more time dealing with phone calls and e-mails from board members — often pressing petty concerns — than with principals, teachers and students.

That was a factor in the departure of the county’s two most recent schools chiefs, John Deasy and William R. Hite Jr., the current chiefs of the school systems in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, respectively. Blithely driving away talent in that manner is unacceptable, and the county can’t afford it.