The chief executive of the Prince George’s County school system has asked his top aide to step down, part of the fallout of an ongoing furor over child abuse in the Head Start program.
Kevin M. Maxwell requested the resignation of George H. Margolies — his chief of staff and longtime ally — on Wednesday. At a school board meeting Thursday, Maxwell said the departure was prompted by an email Margolies wrote, which some interpreted as the administration trying to keep the county school board from publicly discussing concerns about Head Start.
Maxwell also announced Thursday that he is seeking a state audit of the county’s Head Start program after alleged child abuse led federal officials to revoke the county’s $6.4 million grant for the program.
Maxwell hired Margolies after taking over the Prince George’s school system in 2013; the two had worked together when Maxwell was schools superintendent in Anne Arundel County. Both previously worked for Montgomery County’s school system, which is where they met.
“I thank him for nearly 40 years of service in public education,” Maxwell said in a brief statement.
The resignation came shortly after the public discovery of an email Margolies wrote in April that appears to suggest keeping the Head Start program out of the public eye by burying it at the bottom of school board meeting agendas and limiting how board members received updates.
Margolies, who said he had no role in overseeing Head Start, said administration critics have misconstrued the meaning of his email. He said he was not trying to suppress board discussion of problems in Head Start.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Margolies said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I am being scapegoated. I am being made a sacrificial lamb. . . . I don’t think this was a necessary response, but he can do as he wishes,” he said of Maxwell’s decision to ask for his departure. “He happens to be making a mistake.”
Maxwell said at the school board meeting that Margolies’s email had an “inappropriate tone” and “did not reflect the type of partnership” he wants with the board. But he said it was not evidence of any effort to keep information from the board.
“Allow me to be clear. This email does not constitute evidence of a conspiracy or coverup,” he said. “It was solely about the format of how information is shared with the board, and not if information is shared with the board related to the Head Start policy council.”
Maxwell said the newly announced state audit of Head Start would come amid a separate, independent review that will assess the school system’s internal communications and employee and labor relations protocols.
“It is clear that our gaps in these two areas are hindering our efforts towards full accountability, transparency and responsiveness to incidents of suspected child abuse, neglect and inappropriate conduct,” Maxwell said at the board meeting.
Maxwell’s actions did not satisfy several on the 14-member board, who called for his resignation as they left the meeting. He has said he has no plans to resign.
Margolies’s departure and the new audits come as the school system reels from recent revelations of child abuse and inappropriate conduct.
In February, a school volunteer was accused of directing children to perform sex acts that he video-recorded at a Glenarden elementary school. The volunteer, Deonte Carraway, was indicted on 270 counts of child pornography and related charges, and the case set off an examination of district safeguards and policies.
Just before the new school year started, the school system lost its Head Start grant after federal authorities found instances of corporal punishment and the humiliation of children in the early- education program. The government also found the county’s response to the problems to be insufficient.
Five members of the school board alleged in August that the school system concealed problems in Head Start, and they called for the resignation of the board’s leaders.
Their complaints appeared to be reflected in an email in April that shows Margolies advised against making Head Start a board discussion item when the program was under federal review after an incident in which a teacher forced a 3-year-old who wet his pants to mop up his urine in front of the class. WUSA9 first revealed the email.
The Margolies email said that board Vice Chairman Carolyn M. Boston was pushing to get Head Start on the agenda for discussion. The email referred to a compromise approach — “for which I have scars on my back” — involving the posting of Head Start policy council minutes on a board website.
“This will not be a discussion item,” the email said, noting that the board’s chairman, Segun C. Eubanks, would “simply make reference” near the meeting’s end to minutes being posted “for the Board members’ reading pleasure.”
It also said Boston was “convinced that she can say that we have satisfied any requirement that the doings and minutes of the council have been shared with the Board as part of its oversight.”
Margolies said Thursday the email has been taken out of context; he said that it came when there had been one troubling incident in Head Start and that he did not know the grant was in jeopardy.
He said he thought that if Head Start became a monthly discussion item, the same would have to be done for programs such as special education and English-language learning. In hindsight, given the problems that later came to light, “I might have advised differently,” he said.
The board’s top leaders said the email did not reflect an effort to impede scrutiny of Head Start.
Eubanks said that “the tone and overall message” were unfortunate but that it “had no direct connection to the incident or the investigation.” Boston voiced similar views and said the conversation about posting Head Start minutes had gone on for a year.
Others said the email showed that Head Start matters were kept from the board and the public.
“It’s a step in the right direction that George steps down, as he should, but George did not do this alone,” said Edward Burroughs III, a member of the school board.
Another member, Verjeana M. Jacobs, said the tone and disdain in the email is typical of a broader attitude toward the board. She said the email “shows the administration and board leadership were complicit in covering up the abuse of children.”
Margolies had a long career in education before Prince George’s. He served as legal counsel to former D.C. schools superintendents Vincent E. Reed and Floretta McKenzie from 1978 to 1989. He then worked in private practice as a consultant before becoming an assistant superintendent for compliance in Baltimore.
Before going to Anne Arundel, Margolies worked for 11 years as the staff director of the Board of Education in Montgomery County.
Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.