The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This school board can’t stop fighting. A Maryland bill aims to fix it.

Three members of the Prince George’s County school board have left in recent weeks

Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks speaks with the press after touring a vaccination site last April. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that three school board members had resigned in the past three months. The members have all resigned in the past four months. The article has been corrected.

The Prince George’s County school board is dysfunctional, observers say. It has a history of disagreement, and recent conflicts have stymied decisions for the schools system of 131,000 students: Board meetings have been canceled, three members have resigned in the past four months and business leaders in the county have called for intervention from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R).

The reason, Prince George’s officials and community members believe, is the school board’s hybrid nature. It is made up of nine elected members and four appointees, which include the chair and vice chair, and the two blocs are often opposed.

Now, legislation working through the Maryland General Assembly could reshape the panel to become fully elected by 2024. The bill would also allow school board members to vote for a board chair and vice chair beginning in December of this year. And it initiates a separate work group that would evaluate how school board members are trained and how they’re paid before an elected board comes into effect.

Those additional two years would give officials more time to ease into the fully elected structure and prevent more tumult, said Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), who sponsored the bill.

“If we don’t address those concerns, we’re going to find ourselves again in the same situation and it’s going to do a lot of damage,” Peña-Melnyk said.

The bill has passed the state House and had an initial hearing in the Senate last week. The legislative session is scheduled to end April 11.

Education advocates say the rearrangement can’t come quickly enough.

Unusual tension in Prince George’s school board races reflects ongoing rift

The current organization was put in place in 2013 by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who tried to remedy the school system’s issues by seeking greater influence over the superintendent and elected school board, arguing the county executive was well suited to hold the local school district accountable. He advocated in front of the Maryland legislature for a hybrid structure that would let the county executive and County Council appoint four members, and for the county executive to pick the chair and vice chair.

Baker’s hybrid model currently remains in effect. While the county executive appoints three members and the council picks one, nine members are elected and one is a student member elected by the county’s regional association of student governments.

Joe Brice, president of the Prince George’s County Civic Federation, opposed Baker’s initiative at the time, arguing that it overturned the people’s will. Since then, Brice has worked with members of Prince George’s County delegation to push for legislation that would make the school board fully elected again as soon as possible.

“Prince George’s County is the wealthiest predominantly Black, Black-run county in the United States. You’ve got all these people with different educations and pretty decent salaries … who are just too stupid to vote for a school board. That’s what this says here,” Brice said about the board’s current hybrid appointment-election makeup.

Baker’s public schools takeover: Achievement or Achilles’ heel?

School boards are state-regulated entities. Across Maryland’s 24 school districts, 19 have fully elected boards. Four are hybrid boards containing elected and appointed members. One — Baltimore City — is fully appointed, but will shift to a hybrid board after the 2022 general election. The Maryland Association of Boards of Education remains neutral on whether boards should have elected or appointed structures, given the limited research on whether that suggests one method works better, a spokeswoman for the association said.

Vladimir Kogan, an associate professor at Ohio State University who researches education governance and how elections affect student learning outcomes, said often the arguments on elected vs. appointed boards are “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” with different ideological factions trying to game the upper hand. School-age children are ineligible to vote in school board elections, and those who turn out the most at the polls are often adults without kids, making it difficult through the democratic process to elect members who actually represent students’ needs, he said.

For Prince George’s County in particular, Kogan said the problems are clearly a byproduct of “adult egos, adult ideologies and adult political agenda.” Broadly, school board members often have their own theories that aren’t always proven by academic research in the field, he said.

“They’ve all convinced themselves they’re doing it on behalf of the kids … but really I think if you peel it all back, it’s really about adults fighting with other adults,” Kogan said.

Some education advocates in Prince George’s County argue that a system with 208 schools and centers was naturally going to feature bickering, because it’s such a wide base to begin with. The school system is one of the 20 largest districts in the United States.

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Alvin Thornton, a former Howard University professor and four-time chair of the Prince George’s school board, said that “there is no doubt there is dysfunction in the governance system,” but that there are systemic issues beyond its slate of appointed and elected members.

School board leaders currently make $18,000 a year, he said, which is only $5,000 more than he made when he was chair in the 1990s. He added that even though Prince George’s County is so large, it doesn’t have a designated at-large elected member to consolidate the needs of its vast base, like its neighbor Montgomery County — the state’s largest school system.

County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) has said she favors an all-elected board. Calling the school board “tumultuous … is an understatement,” she said. “It’s been dysfunctional.”

But rather than following Baker’s approach of going to the legislature, she chose to create a task force to evaluate the school board. She believes that approach is more collaborative.

“I just want to be talking about kids again, and that’s what I promised that I would do with it — get us back to a place where our discussions can be all about kids and about their teachers and about their parents,” Alsobrooks said in an interview Friday.

Angela Alsobrooks came into office vowing to depoliticize education. It hasn’t worked.

The task force organized by Alsobrooks wrote in its final report in February that allowing the county executive to pick the board’s leadership stirred resentment among its elected members. She’s been criticized for appointing as chair Juanita Miller, a former state delegate known to stir up controversy. Miller and the board’s current vice-chair, Sonya Williams, were often at odds with the board’s liberal voting bloc on education issues.

Belinda Queen, a former school board member who represented District 6, resigned her board seat in March to run for the District 6 seat on the County Council. During her time on the board, she said giving that power to the county executive exacerbated the problems. She pointed to an incident in February last year, when Miller decided to cancel a meeting that would have included agenda items focused on harsh student discipline and the science of reading instruction. Miller argued in a letter to Council County members that board action needed to be delayed because she had ethical concerns about some of the posts, as The Washington Post previously reported.

Parents and other board members immediately pushed back, arguing that the agenda items were too significant to delay. Seven members of the school board’s major liberal voting bloc also pushed back against Miller’s actions, including Edward Burroughs III (D), who represented District 8 at the time.

Many of the ethical concerns Miller voiced at the time about other members were later disproved, Burroughs said, but in the process, students were failed and important educational policies were pushed aside. He left the school board in December to run for an open seat representing District 8 on the County Council, where he thought he’d have a greater impact.

“It was clear that it became progressively difficult to get anything meaningful done for children there,” Burroughs said.

Miller did not respond to questions about the board’s culture but said she hasn’t taken a formal stance on the legislation going through Maryland’s State House. She said that she trusted the protocol for returning to a fully-elected board “will be well-defined prior to implementation.”

Error-riddled ethics reports on school board create political firestorm in Prince George’s County

When the February meeting was canceled, Queen said she hoped that the school board would still come together as a team, but that didn’t happen.

“They put leaders together that don’t belong together,” Queen said. “And that’s what happens when you mix apples and oranges.”

More appointed members will be added to the board for the short term, because it’s under Alsobrooks’s purview to appoint replacements for vacated seats. The appointed members would take over from Queen, Burroughs and former member Raaheela Ahmed (District 5), who resigned in February. So far, only Burroughs’s District 8 replacement has been named.

Elected members worry that the additional appointed members won’t be representative of Prince George’s County residents and may cause a shift in how the board votes. Members David Murray and Joshua Thomas — both a part of the board’s younger, liberal voting bloc — say the shift has already happened, pointing to a recent effort proposed by CEO Monica Goldson to consolidate its alternative schools.

Dozens delivered testimonials in front of the school board opposing the initiative, and many of the elected members voted against its consolidation. Burroughs and Ahmed — who likely would have voted to keep the schools separate — had already left the board, and Goldson’s initiative passed.

“That was really, really sad and kind of really emblematic of what is to come for the board,” said Murray, who represents District 1.

Meanwhile, back in Annapolis, lawmakers continue to review the bill that would alter the board’s composition. Last week members of Prince George’s County’s Senate delegation voted in favor of it.

Thornton, who has three grandchildren still enrolled in the school system, said the current structure of the school system has to change, because it fails to foster an environment that recruits the best possible people to serve. Students are undervalued in the process, he said. As a grandfather, he said, that’s what keeps him “awake at night.”