While the referendum on expanded gambling has dominated the political scene in Prince George’s County, another critical decision is looming for voters: choosing who should serve on the county Board of Education.
Nine candidates are vying to fill five seats on the nine-member board in Maryland’s second-largest school system.
The nonpartisan election of a majority of the board represents an opportunity for voters to set a new course for the 123,000-student system, which has experienced upheaval in recent months with the departure of its school superintendent and other key administrators.
“This is the most important event that is going to take place in the county,” said Bob Ross, president of the county branch of the NAACP, which co-sponsored a recent candidates forum.
Within months of taking office, the new board will have the daunting task of selecting a schools chief, approving a spending plan and addressing weighty issues such as teacher evaluations and common core curriculum.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who has no direct control over the school system, has repeatedly said the futures of the schools and the county are inseparable. He has argued that the board needs continuity and has orchestrated an effort — which includes the teachers union and state senators — to get the majority of the incumbent members reelected next week.
“Without a strong school system, our march toward becoming an economic engine will be far more difficult,” Baker said in a speech to business leaders in June.
The system — which historically has had uneven test scores — has made strides academically in recent years. But it still has experienced low achievement in many schools, rapid leadership turnover and mistrust by parents. Such problems have kept businesses from moving to the county and parents from sending their children to the public schools, leading to a decline in overall enrollment.
Questions linger over the board’s decision three years ago, under the leadership of Chair Verjeana M. Jacobs, to start a 10-year lease on a new headquarters for $3.6 million a year during a school system fiscal crisis. The board backed out of the deal, which Jacobs’s husband helped craft, after state legislators threatened to cut education aid.
Micah Watson, who is challenging Patricia Eubanks (District 4), said rebuilding confidence in the school system is one of the board’s biggest challenges.
He said the board must address how it communicates with the public. Watson; David Murray, who is running for the vacant District 1 seat; Raaheela Ahmed, who is challenging Jacobs in District 5; and incumbent Edward Burroughs III (District 8) have called for more transparency, which they say will be key to building public trust in the school system.
“I have been pushing for an external audit,” Murray said. “Unfortunately, we have a lot of waste in our school system, and that’s money we could use in the classroom.”
Incumbent Henry P. Armwood Jr. (District 7), a former parent liaison who is facing a challenge from newcomer Carletta Fellows, said he wants to create parent academies in the school system to spur parental engagement. He also said the system needs to find a way to provide all of its employees with a cost-of-living increase.
Fellows said the biggest issue facing the school system is deteriorated facilities. The county needs to consider borrowing money to improve infrastructure, she said.
Jacobs said her experience on the board has prepared her to deal with the critical issues ahead, including the selection of the new superintendent. She said she also has a proven track record of working cooperatively with elected officials, which is essential when the school system works with legislators and County Council members on the budget.
Baker has endorsed three of the four incumbents: Jacobs, Armwood and Burroughs, who is effectively unopposed after his challenger withdrew from the race.
In the seat vacated by Rosalind Johnson (District 1) — who resigned in October after The Washington Post reported that she was living outside of her district — Baker has thrown his support behind Zabrina Epps, an administrator at a community college. Epps is being challenged by Murray, a student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a former student member of the State Board of Education.
In the District 4 race, Baker is backing Watson, a foreign affairs officer at the State Department, over the incumbent, Eubanks. She did not return calls seeking comment.
“We need someone with the greatest maturity to deal with the budget crisis,” Baker said in explaining his selection of Jacobs over Ahmed, a student at the University of Maryland at College Park. Jacobs, who has received about $10,000 from District 23 legislators for mailings and signs, is in a fierce battle to retain her seat against Ahmed, who received 34 percent of the vote in the primary, outpolling Jacobs by nine percentage points.
Ahmed, who graduated from high school last year and has knocked on more than 7,000 doors in her grass-roots campaign, said her “engagement with the community and knowledge of the school system” would be an asset to the board. “I wouldn’t have won the primary if folks didn’t feel like there was something lacking,” Ahmed said in a recent debate.
Miranda S. Spivack contributed to this report.