Alvin Thornton's announcement last week that he intends to resign from the Prince George's County Board of Education has set off a heated political debate that is reverberating throughout the state.
Thornton has been tapped by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to head a state task force that is to figure out new ways to divvy up state funds among school districts.
Thornton's new post as head of the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence has rankled several Baltimore politicians, most notably Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D), who has tangled with Thornton over what Rawlings has described as Thornton's reluctance to push for changes in the Prince George's public schools.
Rawlings, who heads the House Appropriations Committee, said he would not serve on the panel with Thornton as chairman. Rawlings also questioned whether Thornton would favor Prince George's in the panel's deliberations.
Rawlings said Thornton called him after the news of his appointment became public. Rawlings said the two agreed to meet but added that he will not change his mind and agree to join on the panel.
"I appreciated his willingness to outreach," Rawlings said. But "I indicated I would not be changing my mind."
State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore) said she also believes Thornton was the wrong choice because his deep ties to Prince George's might compromise the process.
"He's a very intelligent person and he knows a lot about education, but I don't think that's going to give a high comfort level to people from other jurisdictions," she said.
Thornton said in an interview that he will try to keep politics out of his new role.
"Issues like this are bigger than Delegate Rawlings and me," Thornton said. "If we are able to get the issue before the public, Alvin and Rawlings will be minor players. . . . It's easy for it to get reduced to a personality issue, but I will not be a part of it."
The panel 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. Many state leaders and educators have criticized the current arrangement, saying it does not deliver equitable funds to various districts.
In Prince George's, Thornton's departure, expected when his chairmanship expires Dec. 1, also has left a mark, with county school board members starting to angle for the county school board's top job.
School board Vice Chairman Doyle Niemann (Mount Rainier) finished a close second to Thornton (Suitland) in the last vote by the board, which elects its own chairman, and several board members say Niemann will again be interested in the position. Others point to James E. Henderson (Seabrook) and Kenneth E. Johnson (Mitchellville), who once held the chairmanship, as contenders.
County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) will appoint a replacement for Thornton from District 7.
Fellow school board members defended Thornton and said that his past record of activism in Prince George's shows that he is committed to ensuring equity for all schoolchildren. They said Rawlings continues to hold a grudge against Thornton that was really aimed at Prince George's legislators who Rawlings believed had stood in the way of his efforts to aid Baltimore's troubled schools in years past.
Rawlings said last spring that he was not taking revenge but rather trying to fix the Prince George's school system. He has led the fight to withhold about $8 million in state funding for the county, which he will release only if a state-appointed panel overseeing school reform efforts in Prince George's delivers a positive report to his committee before November. That likely will happen, according to sources familiar with the oversight panel's recent deliberations.
Thornton "insisted that people focus on real issues and problems, and much of the political debate did not do that," Niemann said of Thornton's squabbles with Rawlings. "A lot of the debate was not based on facts or real analysis about what the problems were. [Thornton] was very determined to insist that that happened and that put him in conflict with political leaders who want to simplify issues and point fingers. But he never wanted to do the expedient thing and be nice to people in power."
Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D-Cheverly), chairman of the county's House delegation, welcomed Thornton's appointment, saying it "gives us someone who understands our needs as a county and can bring that perspective to the whole statewide issue."
"This is a perfect task force for him to serve on because he's one of the leading advocates for a new formula," Baker said.
County Council Chairman M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Upper Marlboro) said Thornton has been a "strong-willed" leader on the school board.
"With his academic background, he brings a certain style, and there are some people who like that style and others who don't," Estepp said. "But I've always found him to be a very, very strong advocate for public education in Prince George's."
Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), who served on the school board with Thornton, said he does not believe that Thornton's political opponents in the legislature will dismiss the findings of the task force simply because Thornton is chairman.
"He knows how to run a committee, and he's smart enough to be able to digest the information," Hendershot said. "That's all the task force is going to do."
Some see Thornton's pending departure as a passing of the baton to the new generation of leadership. Superintendent Iris T. Metts, who left her position as Delaware's education secretary, took over from longtime school system insider Jerome Clark in July. And the three newest school board members--Henderson, Robert J. Callahan (Bowie) and Catherine A. Smith (Cheverly)--have created a loose coalition and have succeeded in pushing through some reform measures about budget issues.
Thornton, first 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. But some who have worked closely with him in Prince George's said he recognized that the time was right to move to a new position.
Thornton, a political science professor at Howard University, had resigned from the school board once previously, in August 1996, to accept a part-time job as the school system's desegregation consultant. Thornton then reclaimed his board seat in November of that year, saying he didn't think the system had enough money to finance the $346 million plan he helped develop to end the desegregation busing because residents had rejected a measure to lift the property tax cap.
As board chairman, however, Thornton helped negotiate last summer's court settlement, which calls for 13 new schools to be built in the county to help ensure that low-income communities have equitable resources after the desegregation busing is phased out.
"He never waivered in his commitment that every student have an equal chance," Niemann said. "He has always believed that the old patterns of racism and discrimination had to be not just ended, but that the lasting consequences had to be addressed."
Staff writers Amy Argetsinger and Jackie Spinner contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Del. Howard P. Rawlings has said he won't serve on panel with Thornton.
CAPTION: Alvin Thornton is to head a state task force on educational finance.