The school board races in Prince George's County have added fuel to the debate over Superintendent John A. Murphy's leadership as well as the discrepancies in spending for neighborhood schools and the well-funded magnet programs that Murphy created.
Three seats are open on the nine-member board, although only two of the races are contested. This is the first election since County Executive Parris N. Glendening and the school board tried to dissuade Murphy from leaving for another job by offering him a 10-year, $150,000-a-year contract. The candidates have almost uniformly avoided harping on the ill-fated contract proposal and the widespread anger it sparked, instead questioning whether Murphy's leadership abilities are worthy of such largess.
The Prince George's school system, with 106,000 students, is the second-largest in the state behind Baltimore's. Since Murphy took the helm in 1984, the school system has received national praise for posting a significant increase in standardized test scores and creating a magnet school program.
But after five years of unprecedented achievement and accolades, school officials are grappling with several thorny issues. They include the disproportionate failure rate of black male students, the utility of a 20-year-old court-ordered desegregation plan when the student population is now two-thirds black, and growing discontent about the gap in funding and educational offerings between magnet programs and non-specialized schools.
Candidates in the contested races have also criticized Murphy for failing to work with school board members in formulating new programs and policies.
"Murphy has done great things for this county, but he has to realize that he does not work alone," said Kenneth E. Johnson, 36, director of resource management at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He faces Verna Teasdale, 49, an assistant professor of business management at Prince George's Community College in the District 5 race. "He should consult with board members and get their input before presenting a new program to the public as if it were his and his alone," said Johnson.
Frederick C. Hutchinson, one of two candidates for the District 8 seat, criticized Murphy and the board for hammering out proposals in executive session rather than discussing issues in public.
"The public would be better served if the superintendent and the board had dialogue on major decisions rather than doing everything behind closed doors," said Hutchinson, 36, a state tax policy specialist for the Center on Budget and Priorities.
It's not the first time that Murphy has heard such complaints. Board members have repeatedly chastised Murphy for failing to consult them when drawing new programs, a criticism that surfaced again this fall when a report on black male achievement was distributed to the public before it was released to board members.
Murphy said he has fostered a cooperative working relationship with the school board members and staunchly defended his record during in interview yesterday.
"I think those people don't know what goes on at our Board of Education," Murphy said. "I work very closely with the board, and I think most board members would tell you that."
All four candidates for the District 5 and District 8 seats agree the school system needs to significantly improve funding for neighborhood schools, echoing a longstanding complaint that the magnet programs have hoarded the best resources and teachers. District 2 school board member Suzanne M. Plogman, who is running unopposed, said her primary goal in the coming months is to bolster funding for schools outside the magnet program.The candidates, however, are less closely aligned in their prescriptions for finding the money. Both District 8 candidates, James "Mike" Davis, and Hutchinson, said only as a last resort should the school board support Murphy's efforts to repeal or amend TRIM, an 1978 amendment to the county charter that limited property taxes.
Davis, 51, is a program analyst for the federal procurement data center and former president of the County Council of PTAs.
Murphy has been publicly encouraging the county's residents and privately lobbying business leaders to pressure Glendening and other officials to scrap the restrictive tax initiative.
MAGNET, MILLIKEN II AND GENERAL NEIGHBORHOOD FACILITIES IN PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY
Number of schools..........47............19...................107
Number of students.....18,385.........9,540................77,670
*Milliken II schools don't participate in the court-ordered desegregation program. They are considered too difficult to desegregate because the largely black neighborhoods where they are located are too far away from more integrated areas.
SOURCE: Prince George's County Schools