A Fresh Start for Prince George's Schools

Sunday, July 9, 2006

This fall, for the first time in six years, Prince George's County will elect a Board of Education. After four years of relative harmony among the appointed board members, a new democratic era will begin for this system of almost 135,000 students, whose success is required for a healthy, vibrant county. As of the July 3 filing deadline, 48 candidates were vying for nine seats.

For better or worse, the candidates represent the breadth and depth, the past and future, of Prince George's County. The roster includes two competent members of the current appointed board: Vice Chairman Howard W. Stone Jr. and Judy Mickens-Murray. One former elected board member who is running is Kenneth E. Johnson, whose fractious leadership led to the dissolution of the last elected school board.

So how should we determine which nine are most fit to serve?

? First, we need board members who will focus on the progress of the schools and not on the politics of the board itself. The current appointed board has done just that, and for the third year in a row, our students improved their overall scores in reading and mathematics on the Maryland School Assessments and outpaced the overall gains made across the state.

? Second, we need stability. Five superintendents in less than 10 years are too many. The new school system chief executive, John E. Deasy, has been impressive so far. In a short time, he has demonstrated his intelligence as well as decisiveness in hiring and firing administrators. Deasy has provided inspiration for students, teachers and the school system staff, and the community. The new board members need to let him do his job and stick to doing theirs, providing broad policy leadership and fiscal oversight.

? Third, the destructive acrimony of the former elected board must not return. One way to avoid this would be a "unity" slate -- candidates who are vetted by and run with the collective endorsement of incumbent state senators, County Council members and other elected county officials.

The new nonpartisan board will consist of nine elected members and a student representative. Four members will hold at-large seats; five members will represent newly created districts. In the Sept. 12 primary, voters will choose four at-large candidates and two district candidates. On Election Day, Nov. 7, the eight top at-large vote-getters and the 10 top district vote-getters (two from each district), will be presented countywide. Voters will choose nine (four at-large and one from each of the five districts) of the 18 candidates selected in the primary. Ultimately, each Prince George's voter will participate in choosing all nine board members.

Now that we have the opportunity to elect a school board again, let's do it right and make sure we select the professional, thoughtful and reasoned leaders our children deserve.

-- Peter A. Shapiro

Hyattsville

is a senior fellow at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland and a former member and two-term chair man of the Prince George's County Council.

pshapiro@umd.edu


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