Prince George's Schools on the Cusp
Sunday, January 8, 2006
The Prince George's County school system is nearing a leadership crossroads after seven months with a stopgap chief executive who earns hourly pay and nearly four years with an unelected school board.
Within weeks, the school board hopes to choose a new chief to lead 199 public schools with about 133,000 students. The application period for a nationwide search closed Thursday. The board itself is scheduled to be replaced in fall elections that will usher in a new political era for a system plagued in recent years by instability and an up-and-down academic reputation.
But various players with a stake in improving Maryland's second-largest system could scramble the search process or the elections. Among them are lawmakers in Washington and Annapolis.
Central to the intrigue is Board of Education Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor.
Tignor has said repeatedly that she is not seeking to replace departed schools chief Andre J. Hornsby. But she has not ruled out accepting the post if the search fails to produce a candidate acceptable to the school board. One board ally, Vice Chairman Howard W. Stone Jr. (Mitchellville), touts her as a possible chief in what might be called "Plan Bea."
Tignor also has said she will not be a candidate in the fall school board elections. She said, however, that she wants the state legislature to postpone elections and extend the term of a nine-member board that was appointed in 2002 by a governor and county executive who are no longer in office.
"Give the current board two more years," said Tignor, a veteran Upper Marlboro politician who has been a prominent voice -- often the dominant voice -- in the school system. "Having a couple more years would probably put everything in perspective. I would like to keep going as an appointed board."
Many insiders discount the possibility that Tignor would jump to the schools chief post or that elections would be put off. But improbable scenarios have unfolded before in Prince George's. An earlier -- and elected -- school board tried and failed in 2002 to fire Superintendent Iris T. Metts. The backbiting on that board grew so intense that the state stepped in to abolish it.
Metts stayed on with the new board, which Tignor led, only to leave the next year. Her successor, Hornsby, stayed only halfway through a four-year contract. He resigned in May amid an FBI investigation and an ethics controversy, although he denied wrongdoing and has been charged with no crime. Hornsby, viewed in many quarters as a strong academic leader, could not escape a cloud that emerged after the school system purchased $1 million worth of classroom equipment while he was living with a saleswoman who worked for the vendor.
His job then fell to the school system's top personnel officer. Howard A. Burnett agreed to serve as interim chief for $100 an hour, for a maximum 50 hours a week, for 12 weeks ending in August. But his tenure lengthened as the board search process moved forward slowly. It now seems likely that Burnett will serve as interim chief for most of the school year. Burnett has said he will not be a candidate for the permanent job.
A milestone passed last week as the county's search consultant, Ray and Associates Inc., gathered the final applications for the chief's post. School board members will soon sift through them with an eye toward interviewing candidates within a few weeks and perhaps hiring a chief by the end of next month. There was no immediate word late last week on who, or how many people, had applied for one of the state's most demanding educational jobs. Only the Montgomery County system is larger.
Board member Charlene M. Dukes (Glenn Dale), head of a panel organizing the search, said she believes it will yield credible contenders. "The candidates who are interested in this position have done their homework and are excited about the possibilities," she said.