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

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Error-riddled ethics reports targeting Prince George’s County school board members are driving a new wave of dysfunction for the body charged with making policies for one of Maryland’s largest school systems.

The reports accuse a majority of elected school board members of a variety of offenses, including steering contracts, doing political favors and engaging in a quid pro quo with a labor union. The allegations are being leveled against a more liberal bloc that has frequently clashed with the county’s political establishment, setting off a political firestorm in this D.C. suburb.

Prominent pastors and the county’s top business leaders have rallied, demanding intervention from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R). The school board chair publicly ridiculed the board’s elected members. County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) put out a sharply worded statement seeking state action.

The elected school board members, in turn, have battled to clear their names — hiring lawyers, meeting with high-ranking officials and calling out numerous mistakes in the ethics reports. They’ve also mounted their own effort to remove board Chair Juanita Miller, who they say is unfit to lead and ignited the controversy in the first place.

A Washington Post review of the ethics complaints showed inaccuracies about central details: the history of the board’s contracting; the work a lobbyist did; and the contents of a publicly adopted board resolution.

The back-and-forth is the latest — and most contentious — episode in months of chaos that began in February.

Some blame the dysfunction on the bloc of elected board members, who gained a majority in November 2020, after years as an outspoken minority, by defeating a candidate backed by Alsobrooks and a host of the county’s top political leaders.

Others say it was Alsobrooks’s January decision to appoint Miller as chair that sent the board spiraling.

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The result has been divisive school board meetings where members of the public call the body an embarrassment and some things don’t get done. The board has had no lawyer — several efforts have been scotched — so they have met without legal counsel, unable to hear student and employee appeals.

With a new school year starting soon and the coronavirus pandemic still producing turmoil, the stakes are high for children and families who need a stable, well-functioning school system that supports its more than 131,000 students.

“This does not have to be this way,” said Shayla Adams-Stafford (District 4), one of the school board members targeted in the ethics reports. “We agree on more than people would expect. We disagree on who should govern, an unelected minority or an elected majority.”

Alsobrooks declined interview requests for this article. But in a recent interview with Fox 5, she tried to distance herself from the drama, saying she does not “have responsibility for the school board” — despite being responsible for appointing both its chair and vice chair, in addition to schools chief Monica E. Goldson.

In a statement, Alsobrooks’s spokesman John Erzen said that there was “acrimony and dysfunction” on the board long before Alsobrooks took office in December 2018.

Asked about the ethics reports, including inaccuracies confirmed by The Post, Erzen said Alsobrooks stands by her request for the State Board of Education to review matters before it and “based on [its] findings, take appropriate action.”

Gregory T. Morton Sr., the chair of the ethics panel composed of five residents that produced the reports, declined to answer questions from The Post, citing the confidentiality of the reports.

A board breakdown

Problems on the Prince George’s school board — along with efforts to fix them — date back to at least the early 2000s, when officials switched the scandal-embroiled board from an all-elected one to an appointed one and then back again.

In 2013, then-County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) successfully pushed for a schools takeover that transformed the board into a “hybrid”: Three members are appointed by the county executive and one by the County Council, while nine are elected and one is a student member.

The board saw a period of stability during the first two years under Alsobrooks, who named Alvin Thornton, a widely respected retired Howard University professor, as chair. But Thornton stepped down after the balance on the board shifted with a younger, more liberal bloc gaining power.

Alsobrooks then surprised many political insiders by replacing him with Miller, a former water utility commissioner known to stir controversy. She tapped board member Sonya Williams (District 9), as vice chair — putting two people in leadership who would clash with the new elected majority.

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It wasn’t long before the upheaval started.

Miller suspended board meetings for a time in February, raising concerns about “lucrative no-bid contracts” to the friends of other board members and asking for an external audit of board contracts for the past two years.

In March, after meetings resumed, she opened one by telling the public that elected members appeared to be engaging in “pay-for-play politics,” while repeatedly instructing staff to mute on Zoom an elected board member who tried to object.

The elected board members rebutted Miller’s allegations, saying their focus was on pushing new policies to benefit students at a time when study after study was making clear the national toll of so much time out of the classroom during the pandemic.

The vast majority of policies discussed by the board, Adams-Stafford noted, came from elected and not appointed members — including creating learning hubs for students in need, adding more mental health supports and expanding restorative disciplinary practices in lieu of harsh punishments.

Miller declined requests for comment. Her allies on the board also did not respond to requests for comment.

But last month Miller cast six members of the elected bloc as the cause of dysfunction, citing “unresolved issues of nepotism and serious ethics infractions.” She blamed them for “casting a shadow” over the school system’s progress.

“I have been confronted with obstacles that most could not imagine,” Miller said in a news release.

Beginning in February, multiple complaints were filed with the ethics panel, whose members were approved by the board. It is not clear who filed them, as they are not public.

The Post obtained the ethics reports issued in May and July. They targeted members who have tended to vote as a bloc: Adams-Stafford, David Murray (District 1), Joshua M. Thomas (District 2), Raaheela Ahmed (District 5), Belinda Queen (District 6), Kenneth F. Harris II (District 7) and Edwards Burroughs III (District 8).

Eventually, the ethics panel recommended the removal of all but Queen, who was recommended for censure, the documents showed.

Accusations, and a political firestorm

Ethics reports are supposed to be “strictly confidential” unless and until they are adopted by the school board, Morton said in a brief statement.

But somehow, copies of tentative findings were mailed in unmarked envelopes to the homes of a host of politicians — including state senators, delegates and County Council members — beginning in June.

The elected board members said it was intended to undermine their newfound power. Burroughs, a vocal leader among the elected members, said they would not be “intimidated by this orchestrated political attack.”

Adams-Stafford wrote an op-ed in late July calling the leak of the flawed reports “a targeted attack against the progressive majority of the Board of Education.”

“This speaks to a larger undeniable fact that when young progressive members threaten the status quo within this county they are viewed as a threat and treated as such,” said Adams-Stafford, who received more than twice as many votes as the establishment-backed incumbent.

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A few days later, Alsobrooks released a statement that turned the blame on them, saying it was “outrageous that, to deflect from their own actions, the board members in question are now suggesting that the current series of events were fabricated in an effort to remove them from office in place of an all appointed board.”

The ethics panel, she pointed out, was approved by the board.

At a rally attended by some of the most prominent religious leaders in the county, John K. Jenkins Sr., the head pastor at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, said he was “deeply bothered” by the situation the ethics board raised and asked Hogan to get involved and resolve the issue.

“Some actions must be taken,” said Jenkins, whose church Alsobrooks attends.

The state board is not able to accept the ethics reports until they are first accepted by the local school board, said spokeswoman Lora Rakowski. The school board has not had enough votes to accept the ethics findings — leading to a stalemate so far.

Separately, the state has received requests to remove Burroughs, Murray and the board’s chair, Miller.

There are three main accusations in the ethics panel reports, which contain misleading information and factual errors that undermine some of the allegations.

One focuses on efforts to hire a board lobbyist. The elected majority chose a former employee of the County Council who was attacked by Miller and the ethics panel for her qualifications, scope of work, personal finances, the tax status of the business she worked at and the process by which she was hired.

Another allegation involved a decision to reorganize the board’s office by hiring new staff members. The elected majority within the board was accused of picking two unqualified candidates and not giving departing employees sufficient notice. They say the hires went through the school system’s human resources process, scoring higher than other applicants.

The third main issue is a community workforce agreement, aimed at hiring county residents and providing higher wages and better benefits to workers on school system projects. The agreement drew unanimous board support, but Miller and the ethics panel later said five board members had a conflict because they received campaign contributions from the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), which could benefit.

The board members said in interviews that they disclosed the contributions — from $1,000 to $6,000 — on campaign filings, as required by law. They argued that they and other school board members often vote on issues that affect unions in the deep blue Maryland county.

Among errors confirmed by The Post: The ethics panel asserted the board had never hired its own lobbyist, which it had on multiple occasions; said the lobbyist, Jennifer Jenkins, did not attend legislative meetings or provide legislative updates to the board, though public records show she did; and claimed Jenkins only worked on a bill to make the board all-elected, when documents show she worked on a variety of other measures.

Miller and the ethics panel took issue with the cost of Jenkins’s $10,000 a month contract. But Jenkins was ordered by Miller to stop work after less than a month and has never been paid.

The panel also inaccurately said that the workforce resolution required that LIUNA members benefit from the agreement, but the measure does not state that.

Former Prince George’s County state’s attorney Glenn Ivey, who is representing three of the school board members named in the reports, said the errors made by the ethics panel were some of the worst that he had seen in 35 years in politics.

“This is an egregious abuse of government power,” Ivey said. “Weaponizing ethics rules for this political purpose is way over the line.”

Multiple elected officials also said it struck them as outside the purview of the ethics panel that one of the reports prominently noted research from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation — a conservative, ­anti-union group — that criticized community workforce agreements.

Morton declined to comment when asked about the inclusion of the research.

Prince George’s County Council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-District 1), who received a copy of the reports in an envelope with no return address that was mailed to his house, said he thought “it was an embarrassing attempt by higher level county officials” to use the ethics panel to remove elected members and take control of the board.

“Starting this fight over nothing of consequence,” he said, “merely served to have the county punch itself in the face giving us another black eye.”

But council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6) said that the accused board members were given due process and should have responded to allegations in hearings offered by the panel, instead of hiring lawyers or going to the media.

“The majority of the accused,” he said, “thumbed their noses at their own rules and processes.”

Some school board members said that they submitted written arguments and documents that appear to have been ignored by the ethics panel and that they were not granted hearings even though they wanted them.

As the school system prepares for a windfall of federal funds from the coronavirus relief package and state dollars from the Kirwan Commission, leaders in Prince George’s say it is vital to have a functioning system.

Problems won’t be solved by Hogan or the State Board of Education, said County Council member Mel Franklin (D-At Large).

“No one is going to resolve this issue outside Prince George’s County,” he said. “Nor should we rely on anyone else to fix this for us.”

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