Prince George's schools

Sunday, August 22, 2010; A14

PRINCE GEORGE'S County residents are accustomed to instability in their Board of Education. First, there was the elected school board that acted so erratically it was abolished and replaced with an appointed body in 2002. Four years ago came the return of an elected board. Now, yet another permutation will occur as the county ditches the board's at-large members in favor of a nine-member board composed solely of district representatives. The first step comes Sept. 14 when voters will winnow a field of 37 candidates to 18 who will advance to November's general election.

The stakes couldn't be higher for a county whose school system, while seen to be improving, still ranks in the bottom of the state. There is little doubt that the lack of board stability, matched by a revolving door of superintendents, contributed to the system's problems. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who took over in 2008 from John E. Deasy, seems to have the system headed in the right direction. But there are worries that progress could stall, particularly since a bad financial situation has forced painful cuts in programs and personnel. More cuts are in the offing if the state tries to shift teacher pension costs to the counties or relaxes its maintenance of effort law. The need for a sensible board able to direct policy without micromanaging Mr. Hite has never been stronger.

One worry is that the district-only representation will cause members to care primarily about the parochial interests of their communities, but the redrawn districts have resulted in a healthy field of candidates. There are primary contests in the nonpartisan races in seven of the nine districts. The top two vote getters in each will advance. Candidates in District 2, Mark Cook and Peggy Higgins, and in District 8, Edward Burroughs III and Steven E. Morris, will not be on the primary ballot and will automatically advance to the general.

District 1, which includes Laurel, Beltsville and part of Adelphi, features incumbent Rosalind A. Johnson and six challengers. As a teacher for more than 30 years, Ms. Johnson brought a deep knowledge of the system to the board, but there are stronger candidates. Foremost is Chonya Johnson, 36, a congressional liaison with the U.S. Census Bureau. Chonya Johnson's management and policy experience as well as her insights as the mother of a 6-year-old daughter in the system would make her a valuable addition. Also strong are Mike McLaughlin, 57, a longtime parent advocate with expertise in the needs of special education students, and David H. Murray, 18, a former student member of the State Board of Education with a good grasp of the challenges facing schools in Prince George's as well as the state.

Incumbent Amber Waller, 62, is the clear choice over two challengers as she seeks reelection in the reconfigured District 3, which includes Hyattsville, University Park and Brentwood. Ms. Waller has used her longstanding civic ties to promote community involvement in the schools. She's also brought common sense to the board, as evidenced by her opposition to the ill-fated plans to purchase a new administration building.

District 4, which includes Cheverly, Glenarden, Bladensburg and Landover Hills, features three newcomers, with the most impressive being school activist Aimee Olivo, 33. It was three years ago, when her son was 1 1/2 , that Ms. Olivo realized she needed to get involved in her local school, and the result was the highly successful Cheverly Advocates for Public Schools. Smart and savvy, Ms. Olivo preaches the importance of community having a sense of ownership over schools, and as a former fundraiser she has ideas about how to go after new resources.

Jeana Jacobs, 43, current chair of the board, deserves to be reelected from the new District 5, which includes Bowie, Mitchellville and parts of Upper Marlboro. A lawyer and educator, Ms. Jacobs has provided steady leadership, balancing the demands of her colleagues against the need for Mr. Hite to have the freedom to do his job. She keeps a practical eye on the budget and has proven herself able to make tough calls, while still building consensus.

In District 6, which includes the Largo and Kettering area and parts of Upper Marlboro, incumbent Pat Fletcher, 60, faces three challengers, including Judy Mickens-Murray, 62, a former member of the appointed school board. Ms. Fletcher should be commended for the courage she showed in voting to close schools, many in her community. But Ms. Fletcher is seen as wanting to micromanage school operations, and her defense of the new administration building purchase was ill advised. Better choices for the seat are Ms. Mickens-Murray, who did standout work on the previous board, or Darin Kenley, 37, a Teach for America alumnus who has an impressive resume in education reform.

Four candidates are vying to represent District 7, which includes District Heights and Hillcrest Heights. The best bet is Henry P. Armwood Jr., 60, a former parent liaison, who has been involved in community affairs and is well versed in the issues. Among Mr. Armwood's sensible ideas is the need for a better process to let interested community groups get involved in schools.

Incumbent Donna Hathaway Beck, 54, is the clear choice to represent the southern part of the county in the new District 9. Ms. Beck is a long-time parent activist who, by virtue of her deep knowledge of the system and tireless work in the community, is perhaps the board's most effective member. Smart about the budget, she has a keen understanding of what programs work and what is needed to promote school improvement.

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