Juanita Miller, a former state delegate and water utility commissioner, has stepped up as the new chair of the Prince George’s County Board of Education, appointed as the pandemic continues to rage and students have been learning remotely for 10 months.

She takes over with an appointed vice chair who has been at odds with members of the board’s elected majority — in another marker of the county’s “hybrid” structure of elected and appointed officials for governing schools.

The unusual approach was written into state law in 2013 as part of an effort to turn around a low-performing school district with a rapid turnover of superintendents.

But it has been questioned anew in recent days by several board members, some in the community and the outgoing board chair    in   Maryland’s   second-largest school system.

The Prince George’s County Board is the only one in the state that does not select its leaders. Instead, they are picked by the county executive — currently Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) — who also chooses the school system’s chief executive.

Some leaders point to the drawbacks of the county approach.

“It puts pressures on governance of the system that are unnecessary, and I think it helps to create unnecessary divisions — elected and appointed and those things that I think get in the way of things that we need to do in the school system,” said Alvin Thornton (At Large), who wrapped up a two-year term as board chair this month.

Thornton, a retired Howard University professor widely known for his work in education funding formulas, presided following a period of controversy in Prince George’s that included scandals about inflated graduation rates and large pay raises to top aides. The previous chief executive stepped down in 2018.

The board then had two years of stability, but Thornton said he is recommending that state lawmakers create a blue-ribbon task force to study the 2013 law that overhauled the school system and decide whether it remains the best path forward.

Others worry about how the board will function under its current leadership. It has 14 members — nine elected, four appointed and a student.

Seven board members, all elected, urged Alsobrooks in a letter to appoint their choice as vice chair, Edward Burroughs III (District 8), or if not, then a consensus candidate.

Two years earlier, Alsobrooks allowed the board to recommend a vice chair — Burroughs — whom she then appointed.

This time, Alsobrooks selected Sonya Williams (District 9) — a civil engineer who is not part of the seven-member bloc — who is in her sixth year on the board.

In her announcement, Alsobrooks praised Williams, saying she had worked on capital programs and been active on board committees; she is a former PTSA president.

In a later statement, she said: “In the middle of a pandemic that threatens to exacerbate the achievement gap, I refuse to be distracted by any agenda that does not focus on the education, safety and well-being of our children, their teachers and their parents.”

Others viewed it differently.

The chair and vice chair confer regularly with the school system’s chief executive, Monica E. Goldson, and have significant influence on board issues. Prince George’s has 132,000 students and an operating budget of more than $2 billion.

“This was an extraordinarily divisive move,” said Colin Byrd, mayor of the city of Greenbelt, who wrote an opinion piece calling for Alsobrooks to reverse the decision and warned of re-
creating the contentiousness of previous years.

“This sets up Round 2 of the school board versus the county executive,” he said, adding while there is “a lot to admire” about Alsobrooks, “this was a mistake.”

All other school boards in Maryland pick their own leaders — even boards that include both elected and appointed members, according to John Woolums, of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

Robyn Kravitz, chair of the Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools, said some parents have questioned the nature of the selection process, seeking more transparency. Some would like to see an all-elected board, while others express concerns about particular elected board members.

“I can’t name a person who thinks an appointed system without transparency is the way to go,” she said. Her opinion, she said, is that a fully elected board that selects its own leaders is best.

For her part, Williams said she was glad to step up as vice chair and questioned the notion of a “board majority.”

“I think it’s important to keep the focus on educating students, especially in light of the fiscal constraints,” she said.

Miller, the new chair, presided at a recent meeting, to praise from several on the board. Members voted to support consideration of “equity learning hubs” for students struggling with hardships. It split 7 to 5 on a contract for a lobbyist to advocate on board priorities.

“We will be working together diligently and harmoniously in the future,” Miller said as the meeting ended.

In an interview, Burroughs cited his accomplishments as vice chair, including making financial literacy a graduation requirement, helping conditional teachers become certified as a way to reduce vacancies and pushing for a curriculum review to ensure accuracy in teaching Black and Brown history.

He said he appreciated the support of colleagues who signed the letter to Alsobrooks.

“It is unfortunate that their voices were ignored by the county executive,” Burroughs said. “When politicians make political decisions that have nothing to do with our children, our entire system suffers.”

His allies also expressed dismay.

David Murray (District 1), who signed the letter, argued the board is “still dealing with an executive-controlled school system,” even though Alsobrooks said she would support an all-elected board during her campaign. He described Williams as “divisive.”

“We thought we were moving forward, and now we’re taking a massive step in the opposite direction,” he said.

Board member Joshua M. Thomas (District 2) said he would have liked Alsobrooks to give the board the same opportunity to recommend a vice chair that she had two years earlier.

“We should be represented in leadership and the agenda-setting process,” he said.

Still, Thomas said he has been pleased by the leadership of the new board chair.

“I want to do my part to make sure we have meaningful outcomes for kids, regardless of who is the chair and who is the vice chair,” he said.

Board member Raaheela Ahmed (District 5) called the leadership selection process “nontransparent.”

“Did that set the board up for success?” she asked. “To me, the answer is no.”

She credited Burroughs for building consensus as vice chair.

“I’m convinced there’s going to be a lot of growing pains,” she said. “But I’m hopeful that each board member will put children at the forefront.”

In announcing Miller’s appointment, Alsobrooks praised her long experience in school administration and working with other agencies.

With a 40-year career in education, Miller has worked as an administrator in the D.C. and Prince George’s school systems. She was a one-term state delegate, elected in 1986, and a longtime member of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC).

She was the first African American woman to serve as the commission’s chair and is second vice president of the county branch of the NAACP. Miller made a string of unsuccessful bids for public office — twice for county council and twice for state Senate.

“I look forward to keeping the school system moving ahead,” Miller said in an interview, saying the board seemed to be on track and emphasizing the need to support students who are struggling with distance learning.

In the late 1990s, Miller came under scrutiny for her support to give a sludge-hauling contract to a minority-run firm that was not the lowest bidder and whose owner had contributed to her political campaigns. She denied any ulterior motive at the time.

The matter was referred to an ethics commission, which found she had not broken the law, according to Washington Post coverage. A judge called the failure to award the contract to the lowest bidder “arbitrary and capricious,” ordering the agency to move forward with the low bid.

In the interview, Miller said the episode was long ago and blamed The Post for “perpetuating a lie.” She did not give details but said the paper “just misrepresented it.”

Alsobrooks described Miller as “a first-rate educator” and advocate for children in an interview. As for issues at the WSSC, she said: “She was found not to have committed any crime or violated any ethics rules. It was 24 years ago.”