The Maryland State Board of Education is reviewing an appeal by a nonprofit group and about two dozen Prince George’s County residents who allege that the county’s school system violated local and state rules when it voted to transfer a vacant school to the county so that MGM Resorts could use it as a casino training facility.
Nehemiah’s Vision alleges that the school board violated county regulations in January when it placed the transfer of Thomas Addison Elementary School on its consent agenda, which meant that it was not subject to public discussion. According to board regulations, consent agenda items are “ministerial and administrative in nature, or which have previously been presented to the Board for review and discussion at a prior Board meeting.”
The group also argues that Schools Chief Kevin M. Maxwell and his staff violated state law because there is no evidence that the school system consulted with the state superintendent of education, as is required, to determine that the building was no longer needed for school purposes.
MGM, which has received approval to open a full-service casino at National Harbor, wants to use the nearby school as a training facility. Local officials hope the casino will create more than 3,750 new jobs and boost the county’s economy.
Tonya V. Wingfield, the executive director of Nehemiah’s Vision, said that although the group opposes the board’s decision to allow the casino to use the building, it is most troubled by the way the action was handled. The group wants the state board to overrule the county’s decision and send the issue back to the local board for further consideration.
“The school system is supposed to educate kids on doing what is right and following policy, and here we have the school board and head of the school system circumventing the state law,” Wingfield said. “You will suspend a child when they break the student code of conduct and here you are breaking a state law.”
The Prince George’s Board of Education, which has denied any wrongdoing in the case, has asked that the appeal be dismissed. David Paulson, a spokesman for Assistant Attorney General Jacqueline C. LaFiandra, confirmed that an appeal is pending before the state board, but it is unclear when the board might issue a decision.
Abbey Hairston, an attorney for the school system, wrote in a response to the appeal that Nehemiah’s Vision and the 20 people who are challenging the decision have no standing to do so because they have no direct interest in the outcome.
“Appellants now allege they have standing because they support the school system as taxpayers, parents, grandparents and businesses,” Hairston wrote, arguing that that isn’t enough to link them to the decision. “It is obvious from appellants’ opposition that they object to the county government using the school property as a training facility to train citizens of Prince George’s County and other individuals who will be working at a casino recently approved to be built in the county by the voters.”
Hairston, who did not respond to requests for comment, wrote that the board and Maxwell did not violate any rules.
The county board voted 11 to 0, with one abstention, to declare Thomas Addison as surplus property. Board member Sonya Williams (District 9), who works for National Harbor developers, did not vote and Zabrina Epps (District 1) was absent.
The vote came after several board members raised questions about the proposal. Board member Edward Burroughs (District 8) asked that the item be removed from the consent agenda.
“The way I look on it, we’re giving a surplus building to a casino,” Peggy Higgins (District 2) said before she ultimately voted in favor of the proposal. “I have a problem without an understanding of what MGM will provide in return.”
Thomas Himler, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer for budget, finance and administration, said it is unclear how the deal would be structured. MGM is expected to spend $4 million to renovate the building and would turn it back over to the county when it is done using it, MGM officials have said.