The leader of the Prince George’s County school system signed off on large pay raises for at least two central-office employees who are not among his top aides, sparking questions from critics in the Washington suburb about legality and fairness.
A three-member school board minority bloc released a letter Thursday alleging that chief executive Kevin Maxwell appears to have overstepped his authority by approving several pay raises for employees who they say fall outside his purview. One employee received a 9.4 percent increase, and another 16 percent, according to the letter.
The allegations mark the third pay-raise controversy in recent weeks in Maryland’s second-largest school district and come as Maxwell’s boss, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), seeks his party’s nomination for governor. The raises at issue are significantly larger than the 2 percent increases recently awarded to employees in similarly classified positions, the board members said in their letter.
“This is a reckless disregard for taxpayer dollars in Prince George’s County,” they wrote. “It is decimating the morale of hard-working employees in the school district.”
Schools spokesman John White disputed the allegations, saying the pay raises were not improper. White said they required approval from the chief of human resources and the CEO, and not the school board, which the letter asserted has traditionally had authority to approve increases.
White said the clash follows an analysis done by an internal audit team that reports to the Prince George’s school board. The district’s staff is still preparing a response to the audit findings, he said, arguing that board members are prematurely sounding an alarm.
“Certain board members have gone outside of the process and not allowed the process to complete and that sometimes creates confusion,” he said.
The disagreement comes as Maxwell, in his fifth year as chief executive, has been under fire for months, facing scandals over pay raises and graduation rates, and broader attacks about his management of the 132,000-student school system.
As political campaign season has started in Maryland, candidates have called for Maxwell’s firing.
The minority-bloc members have been some of Maxwell’s toughest critics. The Thursday letter said his actions appear at odds with the 2013 state law that changed the school governance structure in Prince George’s.
The law gives the CEO authority to hire and set salaries for a chief operating officer, a chief financial officer, a chief academic officer, a chief of staff, a board liaison and “any other necessary executive staff in the office of the Chief Executive Officer.”
“It appears he is going above and beyond what is legally his right,” said Raaheela Ahmed, a board member who co-authored the letter. “To me it’s very clear that when you’re talking about the office of the CEO, that’s a specific subgroup of people and not people in other offices.”
White, the school system spokesman, interpreted the state law more broadly, saying it allows Maxwell to sign off on raises involving his direct reports and those who are directly under them.
School board chairman Segun C. Eubanks, a member of the board’s majority, said the larger board has expressed concern about the raises and asked for further information. But he denounced the minority bloc’s decision to go public as the matter is being investigated.
“They are moving to the worst possible conclusion based on, at best, partial evidence and they are intentionally and publicly sharing information that, to me, is to continue with their own personal agendas,” he said.
Eubanks said he believes that the letter from the minority bloc violates the rules and ethics of the board by revealing executive session discussions. “The board has to review this — the letter and the actions of these members — and decide how to proceed,” he said.
Just two weeks ago, Maxwell was assailed for giving raises of more than $30,000 to top aides. The pay of the chief of strategic and external affairs increased nearly $50,000 over less than two years. The director of employee performance and evaluation received a boost of $35,758, or 35 percent, also in less than two years.
Maxwell attributed the large increases to “greater job responsibilities, improved pay parity and/or increased cost of living” and said the salaries of his executive team are on par with nearby school systems.
The pay raise issues go back to March. At first, the focus of the minority bloc was largely on unauthorized raises in the human resources office — six in all.
“Now, about a month later, we have three departments implicated and the superintendent himself implicated,” said board member Edward Burroughs III, a Maxwell critic. “These raises were done without approval from the Board of Education, and the Board of Education has authority to give raises to individuals who are not direct reports in Dr. Maxwell’s cabinet.”
The pay issue appears to have hit a nerve in Prince George’s, where union leaders say pay is less than in surrounding jurisdictions.
“This is just the latest slap in the face to educators who are still three steps behind on the pay scale,” said Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the teachers union.
Board members addressed the letter to Baker, the county executive who hired Maxwell in 2013, reappointed him last year and has stood by him through scandals. If Baker prevails in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, he will face Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has called on Baker to fire Maxwell.
Board minority-bloc members said the district is facing a crisis and called on Baker to intervene.
A Baker spokesman declined to comment on the letter.