Maryland delegate wants a review of Prince George’s school board

A state lawmaker from Prince George’s County has introduced a bill that would create a task force to review how school board members for Maryland’s second-largest school system are selected, who should serve and what type of qualifications they should be required to have.

Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D) said the bill is a response to concerns by residents about the county’s public school system, which has made academic gains in the past several years but is outpaced by other school systems in the region.

Revelations about the Prince George’s Board of Education in recent months have drawn public attention to the elected body. One board member was forced to resign after it was reported that she had been living outside of her district, in violation of state law, and another report pointed out that few members of the board have college degrees, an unusual trait in the Washington region and across the country.

Geraldine Valentino-Smith (GERALDINE VALENTINO-SMITH)

Valentino-Smith, who said the bill is not a criticism of the current board or its work, said her bill rises from a “combined concern with the public to seek out ways to improve achievement; close the achievement gap.” She is not suggesting sweeping changes to the board’s structure and has no particular ideas in mind as to what would be best for the school system. That would be the work of the task force, she said.

Under the bill, the task force would study and make recommendations on the qualifications and compensation of board members; the methods for selecting members; the racial and gender diversity of the board’s composition; the criteria for accountability, oversight and outcomes; and a protocol for board audits and addressing audit findings.

“This is like what you would do with any corporation handling this much money . . . to evaluate and to make recommendations,” Valentino-Smith said.

Board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5) said the panel has not taken a position on the legislation. It did, however, include “maintaining the current board structure” as one of its seven items on the legislative agenda for the upcoming General Assembly session.

Jacobs, a lawyer, said she is “not necessarily against having a task force to look at the selection process and criteria for the Board of Education.”

Her concern is that Valentino-Smith’s bill recommends naming task force members who have weighed in on the issue in the past. She said she would like a more substantive conversation, hearing from experts who can talk about “best practices” and student achievement outcomes with an elected board vs. an appointed board.

The structure of the board has changed three times in the past decade: It went from district elections to at-large appointments to at-large elections back to district elections, its current format.

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) led the effort to move from an elected to an appointed board when he served as a delegate in the General Assembly. Christian Rhodes, Baker’s education liaison, said the county executive’s office did not have a comment on the bill.

Michelle Jackson, a Bowie resident and the parent of a student at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, said one of her concerns is maintaining a board with a “professional reputation.”

“Some people don’t have professional experience,” said Jackson, who supports the legislation. “We need to get back where people feel comfortable with our board’s professional experience.”

Jackson mentioned the low number of board members with college degrees, the experience level of the three college students who vied for seats on the board and the controversy surrounding former board member Rosalind A. Johnson, who was forced to resign after The Washington Post discovered that she had been living outside of her district.

A Washington Post review in November also found that 58 out of 59 school board members in the Washington region, excluding Prince George’s, had bachelor’s degrees. Most had advanced degrees. In Prince George’s,two of eight members at the time were college graduates, with one vacancy. After the most recent elections, the board has four college graduates among its nine members.

Under current rules, board members must be at least 18 and are not required to hold a college degree.

Valentino-Smith floated the idea of the legislation about two months ago. She said the recent revelations increased the interest among residents about “where we are now in terms of the school board and should there be recommendations for qualifications.”

Valentino-Smith has received mixed reactions as she tried to garner support for the bill.

For example, Juanita Miller, the chair of the education committee of the Prince George’s chapter of the NAACP, questioned what appears to be a “revamping of the school board election process.” She wants the task force’s main focus to be on accountability and transparency.

Some think that the bill is a precursor to an appointed board, which Valentino-Smith said is not the case.

“I think we have a responsibility as a delegation to set forth a framework to ensure there is an evaluation process,” Valentino-Smith said. “There are no preconceived changes. The hope is that we will work in partnership with the County Council, school board and county executive’s office to frame this legislation during session so it best meets the needs of parents and students.”