Retired educator L. Regina Barton, 71, inched towards the hearing room of the Department of Legislative Services in Annapolis on April 1 with the support of a walker. The life-long county resident attended the joint hearing on County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s proposed schools takeover to declare her opposition to the plan.
“I have a problem that our [school] board is not performing the way I’d like them to perform but we, the people, must correct that, not Mr. Baker,” Barton said. “To me he’s trying to grab power, I elected him to do a job as a county executive, not to take over my vote.”
Barton was one of the nearly 200 people who met in Annapolis to hear the chorus of opposition to the proposed takeover of the schools. Representatives from the NAACP, Prince George’s County Education Association (PGCEA), school board and several other educational stakeholders trumpeted reasons for opposing the measure in a three-hour meeting where legislators questioned opponents on the strength of the bill.
Even though Baker’s original proposal for school control was significantly weakened in the Senate version of the bill, he continues to champion the need to shift school management and budgetary control to the county executive’s office.
“I still maintain that in a $1.7 billion dollar budget and a 123,000-person school system that the chief executive officer of Prince George’s County should be responsible for improving education and should have a greater role in that,” Baker said.
Prince George’s schools continuously ranks next to last in Maryland performance tests while the school board is currently entangled in a search for the system’s next superintendent, the sixth in ten years. Baker proposed a school system takeover after trying other methods to make the system more effective.
The consensus of opponents at the hearing centers around concern over Baker’s process of putting the educational plan together but most stakeholders agreed that change is necessary and all parties must come together to move the school system forward.
School Board President Verjeana Jacobs said that the board is still opposed to all versions of the bill in the State House.
“We still have some very clear problems with it,” Jacobs told the AFRO but if the bill passes the board is “working on the right thing to do which we think is to have a conversation. We’re prepared to look at the superintendent search” with an inclusive approach.
Baker responded to the board announcement to revisit the superintendent search saying, “I’m pleased to see that we’re making progress here and that they’re not fully opposed to the bill as a whole.”
Some education advocates in the county opposed Baker’s process of introducing his takeover plan to the media and then immediately turning it over to lawmakers in Annapolis. No public review or hearings were held before Baker proposed the sweeping measure.
In Baker’s plan to strengthen the school board he proposed to add the county Parent Teacher Association president as a member to include parent input with schools decisions but the Prince George’s PTA is still opposed to the legislation and the way it was introduced.
“The bill started as a taskforce and was modified and changed but it never came back for public input or public review,” said Earnest Moore, president of the Prince George’s County PTA Council. “It’s difficult to determine what this plan looks like or what parents really think because they’re not exactly sure what he’s planning to do.”
The teacher’s union expressed concerns about how the plan will directly benefit students in classrooms.
“This is too big of an issue to take up with two weeks left in the session. This legislation gives the County Executive sweeping authority and it makes a whole lot of changes that aren’t going to help children,” said Theresa Dudley, vice president of the PGCEA. “It doesn’t say anything in this bill about how this is going to help children learn.”
The language in the bill continues to change during the legislative process but some opposed the measure while admitting some good has come from the issue.
“The bill still needs to be voted down,” said Bob Ross, president of The Prince George’s County NAACP. “The best thing that has come out of this with Baker is that it’s the first time I have seen good dialogue about how to improve the school system. “
The General Assembly adjourns April 8 and legislators will have to move fast to vote on the bill by then, according to Del. Alonzo Washington.
“We’re all working together to figure out what is the best option to improve governance and education in Prince George’s County,” Washington said.