Prince George's County Board of Education Chairman Alvin Thornton said yesterday he will resign to become chairman of a state task force charged with devising new formulas for divvying state funds among school districts.
His announcement came after key state lawmakers criticized Gov. Parris N. Glendening's selection of Thornton to lead the task force, saying his ties to Prince George's would compromise efforts to deal with all counties fairly.
Thornton (Suitland), elected to the school board in 1992, was an architect of the school district's plan to end 25 years of busing required under court-ordered desegregation. Last spring, he bore the brunt of public criticism from lawmakers who complained that Prince George's officials were thwarting the state's attempts to oversee improvements in the troubled county schools.
Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore)--the influential chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the most outspoken critics of Prince George's school officials--told the governor Monday, after learning that Glendening had tapped Thornton, that he would not sit on the task force with Thornton as chairman.
Thornton said he was resigning from the school board to avoid "any conflicts or distractions" as he took over chairmanship of the Commission on Education Finance, Equity, and Excellence. Yet his decision did little to appease Rawlings or other critics.
"I don't think you can undo your allegiances," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
But many Prince George's officials said Thornton would be a fair leader of the task force, unbound by his local connections.
"We do have an acute [need for more state funds] in the county, but Dr. Thornton shouldn't be disqualified because of that," said Artis Hampshire-Cowan, chairman of a state-appointed panel that is overseeing school improvement efforts in Prince George's.
"Dr. Thornton is a professional. I wouldn't presume that he would not exercise the judgment of a professional."
The Commission on Education Finance, Equity, and Excellence was chartered by the General Assembly in the spring to review and recommend changes in the way the state apportions its $1.9 billion in school funding--currently, a patchwork system of overlapping formulas and short-term grants.
Thornton, a professor of political science at Howard University, led the Prince George's effort to find a new superintendent, culminating in the hiring this spring of Iris T. Metts, a former Delaware secretary of education.
In the past year, however, Thornton's school board presidency has been marked by squabbles with state legislators over the leadership of the 130,000-student system.
Some who worked closely with Thornton in Prince George's said yesterday that in the past few months Thornton realized that his leadership had become compromised by personality conflicts and that it was time for him to step down.
Thornton did not say yesterday exactly when he plans to leave the school board, other than that he will free himself in time to start the commission's work. He promised to work with task force members from other districts to create a fair funding system.
"This issue of the education of our children and the equitable funding of their educational needs is larger than me, any county or any other individual," Thornton said.
Rawlings--who last winter decried an "absence of leadership" in the Prince George's school system and threatened to seize powers from county officials--would not discuss the task force other than to say he would not serve on it.
The 27-member panel is supposed to serve for two years, issuing its first report to the legislature in January. Hoffman criticized the governor for waiting so long to appoint the commission, saying it can make little progress in such a short time. But a Glendening spokesman noted that the governor's office has been busy this year creating several other task forces at the behest of the legislature.
Mike Morrill, a spokesman for Glendening (D), defended the choice of Thornton, who he said came highly recommended by legislators and residents.
"Everybody has a background that they bring with them to the position," Morrill said. "The best ones are those who can rise above that background and bring a statewide perspective."