Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s push to take over the public schools is encountering resistance in the Maryland General Assembly, where state lawmakers are expressing mounting concern over granting him all the powers he’s seeking.
Lawmakers have voiced support for his desire to choose the school system’s next superintendent. But they are questioning whether to give him authority over its $1.7 billion budget.
Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s) said he told Baker that the General Assembly would not approve his proposal. “It needs to be retooled to have a chance,” Peters said. Throughout the week, Baker’s aides, working with Senate staffers, redrafted the legislation, which is slated to be introduced Monday, according to lawmakers.
Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Baker (D), said in a statement that the county executive’s proposal is proceeding through a routine process.
“Like any legislation, at any level of government, there will be those who support the bill, those who oppose it and those who will amend it,” he said.
Baker and Verjeana M. Jacobs, who chairs the Board of Education, are scheduled to meet Saturday morning with the county’s House delegation to discuss the proposal.
Whatever the outcome, Baker’s takeover bid has become the latest test of his power in Prince George’s, a county known for its contentious politics. Over the course of decades, racial and class conflicts have played out in the school system, whether the issue was busing, the selection of a superintendent or management control.
Elected on a promise of stabilizing a county reeling from scandal, Baker has presided over falling crime rates and rising home values. And he helped lead a successful campaign to bring casino gambling to the county.
Yet a key piece of his quest to revive Prince George’s has remained beyond his grasp: the long-struggling school system, which has frustrated generations of county leaders.
In the days leading up to his announcement, Baker sought to sell his plan to county leaders in Annapolis. He conferred with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and even Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who has deep roots in the county.
He would take control of the budget and selection of the new superintendent, he told them. He would support the retention of an elected board. While Prince George’s lawmakers embraced the conceptual underpinning of his plan, some legislators from across the state have said they became concerned after examining the details.
The lawmakers expressed worry about setting a precedent by allowing the leader of one county to assume control of the schools — would other county executives also ask for such powers?
In addition, labor leaders and lawmakers have said they opposed a provision in Baker’s proposal that would have the superintendent set teachers’ salaries. They prefer to continue to have salaries negotiated by the school board, which now controls the budget.
In seeking to take over the schools, Baker is following a path traveled by mayors from New York to California. Like those leaders, Baker is betting that he can produce results that will endear him to voters, retain residents and attract new investment.
But Baker’s proposal also means he would bind himself to an education system with a deep history of crises. Those troubles would become his troubles. Along with homicide and robbery statistics, voters could judge the county executive based on graduation rates and math and reading scores, which for years have been among the lowest in the state.
After Adrian M. Fenty (D) was elected District mayor in 2006, he embraced the challenge of rebuilding the school system. Although test scores climbed, his chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, fired teachers and principals and shut schools. Fenty lasted one term.
“Taking over a mess has all the risks of dealing with the bureaucracy, the finances and the expectations,” said Tom Lindenfeld, a political consultant who advised Fenty. “But you’re never going to get anywhere without it.”
Baker risks alienating supporters who remember him saying during the 2010 campaign that he would not take over the schools, a statement he repeated in July after he formed an education commission.
“You don’t have to wonder where I’m coming from,” he said then. “If I thought the governance was the way to go, I’d say that.”
Donna Hathaway Beck, a Prince George’s school board member, supported Baker in three elections. But she said he has now lost her support with his takeover bid — one that he launched with less than three weeks left in the legislative season, leaving little time for a full public debate.
“This is Rushern making a power play,” she said. “I think it was inappropriate for Rushern to step into this after his campaign platform said he wouldn’t. I’ve learned that Rushern doesn’t really struggle with changing positions.”
“This is about trust, and I don’t trust him now,” she said.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), an ally of Baker’s who was a key architect of the takeover plan, acknowledged that “some people will be concerned about a power grab.”
“But I don’t hear a lot of people coming to the defense of the Board of Education,” he said. “Most people want good schools, and they don’t care how we get there.”
From New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, mayors since the early 1990s have taken control over school systems. The goal, said Kenneth Wong, a Brown University education professor, has been to unify political terrain often rife with competing interests.
“You lose sight of the priorities,” Wong said. By centralizing authority, “one office is ultimately accountable so that parents and taxpayers know who to talk to. You have coherence.”
In cities including New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and New Haven, Conn., he said, test scores improved. But Stefanie Chambers, a political science professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said they’re not at the levels of suburban districts. “I’m very concerned about saying that we see great progress,” she said.
In Prince George’s, a voter-imposed cap on property-tax revenue makes funding the schools all the more challenging. In the past decade, student enrollment has slipped from 134,000 to 123,000, as families have left the county or chosen to send their children to parochial and private schools.
Whatever the outcome of Baker’s takeover bid, Alvin Thornton, a former chairman of the county Board of Education, said the recurring conflicts over the school system make progress difficult.
“You have to have a governing consensus among those who run the system,” said Thornton, a Howard University political scientist. “You haven’t had that in many years. The school system has been marginalized, separated. People need to understand the complexity.”
In 2002, when Baker was state delegate, he led a successful campaign in Annapolis to replace the elected school board in Prince George’s with one whose members were appointed by the governor and the county executive. In 2006, after protests from residents angry that their vote had been taken away, the county returned to having an elected board.
Although standardized test scores have climbed slightly, the school system often has been engulfed in controversy. In recent months, for example, a school board member was found to have been serving illegally.
Baker, in an interview, said his frustration with the board dates to 2011, when he asked members to propose an innovative program his administration could fund. He said he was hoping for an idea that would make him say, “Wow!”
“It was really hard trying to get that coordinated,” he said. “Some of the pushback was . . . should you, the county executive, be involved in education?”
While Baker has considered ways to change school governance for years, he said he felt a new urgency in July when William R. Hite Jr., the county’s superintendent, announced that he was leaving for Philadelphia.
Hite’s departure, Baker said, clarified that he had “to seriously start looking at, does this structure that we currently have really operate in the best interest of the county and our school system?”
His frustration with the board peaked the first weekend in March, when it hosted interviews with 10 candidates to replace Hite. Baker had wanted to attend the interviews but could not devote the weekend to it because he also was trying to finalize the county budget.
He asked if he could send Pinsky as his representative. But Jacobs, the head of the school board, said her colleagues on the panel had extended the invitation only to Baker.
To Baker, that answer was another sign of the board’s dysfunction. His anger magnified five days later when he hosted a meeting on youth violence. No one from the school board attended. The members’ explanation — they had a board meeting that afternoon — did not mollify the county executive.
“I stopped the whole government that day,” Baker recalled later. “But they didn’t show up.”
A week later, Baker announced that he wanted control of the school system.
Miranda S. Spivack and Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.