Approach to Schools Splits Pr. George's Candidates

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006

On this much, the two men running for county executive in the Prince George's Democratic primary agree: This is a golden moment of opportunity for the county's public schools.

Rising wealth has filled county coffers with tax revenue that can be focused on fixing decrepit buildings, improving teacher pay and funding ambitious initiatives to increase rigor, proposed by a popular new schools chief. At the same time, the state has stepped up its schools spending.

Jack B. Johnson, who has served as the county's top leader since 2002, said his administration is to thank for the boost, which he argues has resulted in a concrete change in the perception of county schools.

"I think the citizens feel that we are making progress, as opposed to years back, when we were kind of like stuck in the mud," he said. "I think we're headed in the right direction."

The man challenging him for his job, former state delegate Rushern L. Baker III, counters that increased school funding is the result of a regional economic boom that has provided a fragile moment of hope Johnson has not fully exploited. Baker said he fears that without more activist leadership, Prince George's will squander the opportunity to bolster schools.

"You can't simply stand on the sidelines and say, 'Here you go. I'm going to give you a billion dollars, and I hope you do well,' " he said. "I've said this very clearly: If you don't want a county executive that's going to be intimately involved in our public education system, then you don't want me."

Which man voters agree with might have a lot to do with who gets nominated Sept. 12 for an opportunity to lead a county where schools rank among the lowest performing in the state.

Residents agree that improving the quality and reputation of county schools is key to attracting business and maintaining the county's economic boom, and they consistently say education is one of their top priorities for elected leaders.

To Johnson, the past four years have a been a time of change for the better for the school system. He rattles off achievements -- full funding this year of the county Board of Education's requested budget for the first time in a generation, capital expenditures that have resulted in new school buildings and renovations at older ones, as well as rising test scores.

But there's a lot he doesn't highlight, including a leadership tumult in which former schools chief Andre J. Hornsby resigned last year under questions about his handling of contracts. (Hornsby was indicted last month for allegedly steering contracts to associates in exchange for kickbacks; he has denied any wrongdoing.) Although some test scores have risen, they still lag far behind neighboring counties. And recently, more than half the county's high school students failed a test that will soon be a graduation requirement.

That schools haven't made faster progress in such an affluent county, Baker argues to voters in speech after speech, is "simply unacceptable."

He said increased funding should go without question. What the county needs is an executive willing to get more involved in the nitty-gritty of the system, he argues. And he has proposed specific education programs that a superintendent or school board might normally initiate.

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