“WHO IS going to want to step into this with all of the drama?” That’s what Lori Morrow, a mother of two students who attend Prince George’s County schools, asked in the wake of the decision by embattled schools chief Kevin M. Maxwell to leave office. It’s a good question given the educational challenges facing the system and how politics tend to chew up the county’s school leaders.
Mr. Maxwell, who announced last week he will leave as chief executive officer of Maryland’s second-largest school system at the end of the school year, was hired as the county’s eighth schools chief in 14 years. While he still had more than three years left on a contract renewed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), his departure seemed ordained once his tenure became enmeshed in election-year politics. Gov. Larry Hogan (R), whom Mr. Baker seeks to challenge in November, made him an issue, as did Ben Jealous, one of Mr. Baker’s rivals for the Democratic nomination. Leading Democratic candidates who hope to succeed Mr. Baker as county executive also called for his ouster.
That Mr. Maxwell bears some responsibility for his problems is beyond dispute. His five-year tenure was beset by controversies, including the mishandling of sex abuse cases by school personnel, inflated graduation rates and questionable raises to top aides. Mr. Maxwell, having inherited a system with dysfunctional management, also made significant improvements. He expanded academic offerings, including arts integration, language immersion and full-day prekindergarten. Enrollment increased, and test scores rose slightly.
What has made Prince George’s “exceptionally messy,” in the words of one national educational policy expert to The Post’s Donna St. George, are long-standing political tensions centered on issues of school governance. Years of embarrassment from fractious, all-elected school boards that had caused parents (along with well-regarded superintendents John E. Deasy and William R. Hite Jr.) to flee the system prompted Mr. Baker to seek authority over the system. The General Assembly unfortunately did not give him the control he requested but came up with an awkward compromise that essentially restricted Mr. Baker’s authority to selecting the schools chief and appointing some board members. Some elected board members remained resentful, leading to inevitable conflicts that contributed to Mr. Maxwell’s undoing. Mr. Baker is now at risk of paying a political price for his willingness to take on the hard job of school reform without all of the tools he had requested.
Unfortunately, Prince George’s students may also pay a price. There is great uncertainty about what happens next. The circumstances of Mr. Maxwell’s departure are likely to produce more controversy. Mr. Baker will name an interim leader, but then what? Several candidates running for county executive in next month’s Democratic primary — including former congresswoman Donna F. Edwards, state Sen. C. Anthony Muse and State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks — have called for a return to an all-elected school board. Is that based on its record of success? Would it mean repeal of the existing law? Who would have the power to select a permanent chief executive officer?
And how many skilled educators will want to take on a job amid such confusion? These are questions Prince George’s voters might want to ask the candidates for county executive.