The Democratic candidates vying to replace Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III sharply repudiated a cornerstone of Baker's education policy at a campaign forum Wednesday night, vowing to roll back his takeover of the county's public school system.
Baker (D) wrested control of the county's school system from its elected school board during his first term, putting himself in charge of the schools superintendent and the system's nearly $2 billion budget. The restructuring was intended to end years of turmoil in the county's struggling schools.
But those hoping to succeed Baker, who is term-limited and challenging Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in his bid for reelection, say his strategy failed to improve schools and deprived voters of input in choosing educational leaders in Maryland's second-largest jurisdiction.
Their criticism offered a glimpse of the attacks Baker could face on the campaign trail in the months leading up to the June 26 primary or in the fall general election campaign if he is the Democratic nominee.
"We need to return to an elected school board," state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D) said during the forum hosted by the Prince George's County Education Association. "It's called public education for a reason. The public is supposed to be involved."
Three candidates he is competing with in the primary — former congresswoman Donna F. Edwards, Prince George's State's Attorney Angela Alsobrooks (D) and former Obama administration official Paul Monteiro — also said the school board, a hybrid of elected and appointed seats, should return to an elected model.
But Alsobrooks, the county's top prosecutor since 2011, cautioned that it will be futile to change the structure of the school board without addressing "deeper issues" in the county's public education system.
"What I would love is to depoliticize education in Prince George's County," said Alsobrooks, who said that in the past two decades, the county has switched from an elected board to an appointed board twice without substantially improving the quality of education children receive.
Baker has defended his efforts and the tenure of his handpicked schools chief, Kevin Maxwell, citing increased test scores, graduation rates and accountability.
His critics have questioned the legitimacy of the changes, citing several incidents of misbehavior by staff and, most recently, findings that large numbers of students had graduated from high school without meeting requirements.
Muse, Edwards and Alsobrooks, longtime public officials with substantial networks in Prince George's, and Monteiro, a newcomer to local politics, largely agreed during the forum. Answering questions from a full audience that included many teachers, the candidates pledged to increase teacher pay, examine the physical condition of aging county schools and focus on creating programs to keep youths out of prison.
Lewis S. Johnson, a political neophyte who has also filed paperwork to compete in the June 26 primary, was invited to Wednesday's forum but did not attend the event. Another candidate, Jonathan C. White, withdrew from the race Wednesday.
In Prince George's, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to 1, winning the primary is tantamount to victory in the general election. Alsobrooks had a large fundraising lead among Democrats in January, with almost $1 million in the bank — nearly seven times as much as her nearest competitor — according to campaign finance reports.
A rare point of contention during the forum came when Alsobrooks and Muse butted heads over bail-reform changes adopted in Annapolis last year. Alsobrooks supported abolishing Maryland's money-based system, which she said favored the rich over the poor. She suggested Muse, who unsuccessfully introduced legislation to roll back the changes, was "[selling] out the young people."
Muse fired back that taking away a judge's ability to set bail removed one problem but created new ones, including forcing more poor defendants to wear ankle bracelets.
"We need to go back to the drawing board," he said.
Muse, who has built a career as a contrarian voice to the Democratic establishment in Annapolis even though he is in the party, said Alsobrooks is beholden to party leaders — a characterization she rejects.
Chrystie Lynch, who teaches math and special education at Oxon Hill Middle School, said she was excited to hear the candidates focus on improving education in the county, which was roiled last year when a state audit revealed that widespread grade inflation was used to boost graduation rates.
In addition to worrying about insufficient pay, Lynch, a teacher for 17 years, said she and her colleagues are concerned about overcrowding in classrooms and aging school buildings.
"We have teachers and support staff who are struggling every day to pay their rent, and who are getting evicted," said Lynch, who chairs the government relations committee of the Prince George's County Education Association and has not yet settled on a candidate. "We shouldn't have to fight as hard as we fight for an increase in salary."
Edwards suggested that funds should be redistributed so teachers, rather than top school administrators, secure raises they say are much needed.
"We have to move money around so it goes to people who are really doing the work," Edwards said, drawing applause from the crowd.