County officials on Monday were putting the final touches on draft legislation that would allow Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III to seize control of the county’s struggling school system while the county’s Board of Education met privately for more than four hours trying to devise a way to block the proposal.
Baker (D) said this week that he wants to take over the school system by appointing a new superintendent to his cabinet and assuming authority over the school system’s $1.7 billion budget. Should Baker’s plan meet approval in Annapolis, the county executive would gain direct control of school system operations, with the schools superintendent — a position that would gain significantly more power — a direct report.
According to an early draft of the amendments, which were obtained by The Washington Post, the new superintendent would set the salaries of principals, teachers and other personnel. He or she would also have the authority to determine school boundaries and to consolidate schools. The schools chief would serve a four-year term, at the pleasure of the county executive.
The role of the elected Board of Education would be reduced to academic policy and increasing community engagement, according to the draft legislation.
The board, which would gain six additional appointed members, would also offer methods for student assessment and mediation and assist the superintendent in developing a program to train principals in increasing parental involvement.
School board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5) said during a break in a closed session Monday that the board is strongly opposed to Baker’s proposal, which is similar to reform efforts that gave mayors control of school systems in major cities across the country, including the District and New York.
“This is similar to the District of Columbia model, and we know how that’s turned out,” Jacobs said, suggesting that the matter be put to a referendum.
She added that the board has overseen some improvement in the county’s schools and takes its role seriously.
“[Baker] has said he wants achievement improved yesterday, and every indication in the state of Maryland and nationally shows that Prince George’s County has had progressive and steady improvement in achievement year after year after year,” Jacobs said.
“We clearly know that we want to do better, but the data doesn’t show what he is saying,” Jacobs said. “So on the one hand we’re not achieving that goal, but on the other hand that’s what he leaves to us.”
Jacobs said board members are concerned about the amount of power the proposed legislation would give to the superintendent, including the ability to deal with employee salaries.
“That is in direct contradiction to the negotiations process,” Jacobs said, referring to collective bargaining agreements with the teachers union.
County officials said last week that Baker’s proposed legislation probably will be added as amendments to a bill that Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s) proposed months ago to form a task force to review school board operations.
Jacobs said the board is talking to its attorneys about whether such amendments can be added to the task force bill, as she argues that it is substantively different than the original bill.
On Monday, lawmakers said there was some debate on how the proposal would be presented. Instead of altering Valentino-Smith’s bill, the proposal might be introduced as a separate bill.
Meanwhile, reaction among union and community leaders was mixed.
Earnest Moore, president of the Prince George’s County PTA Council, said Baker’s proposal “blindsided” his group.
Doris Reed, who represents the principals union, said her members have been frustrated with the board and are unlikely to join any effort to keep the current structure in place.
“We’re not saying [Baker’s] plans are perfect or we’re in agreement, but someone has to look at the current Board of Education,” Reed said. “We won’t publicly come out in favor of it, but we are not going to oppose it.”
Shirley Adams, the president of AFSCME Local 2250, which represents 5,700 employees, including bus drivers, said her union has been unhappy with some of the financial decisions the board has made, actions that, she said, have contributed to employees not receiving raises.
Adams referred to a push by the board to enter into a lease-purchase agreement on a group of buildings in 2008 and 2009. At the time, then-County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and the General Assembly, led by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), questioned the board about spending $36 million for a new school headquarters when it was cutting programs that would affect classrooms. The board backed out of the deal after Miller threatened to cut state funding.
Adams also accused the board of violating labor laws when it failed to pay processing and payment fees for more than 1,000 teachers who came to the county on temporary work visas.
“It affects all of us financially, and therefore none of our members have been able to get anniversary raises for the last five years,” Adams said. “Still, they have been faithfully serving the students. A lot of them have lost their homes and vehicles due to the bad decisions of the school board members.”
But Adams said she is concerned about giving a new superintendent so much power.
“There needs to be more accountability and responsibility, and my heart applauds [Baker] for wanting to step up to the plate,” she said. “But I’m not sure if he can be attentive to what happens [in the school system] with all his other responsibilities.”