Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III wants to assume full control of Prince George’s County’s massive—and troubled –school system in a move that would reduce the power of some on the 10-member school board and make the school superintendent part of his cabinet.
If Baker succeeds in winning approval by the state legislature in Annapolis, he would assume responsibility of the state’s second largest school system, including a student population of 124,000 and facilities and personnel that are managed with a $1.7 billion annual budget.
“You see this kind of government structure done all around the country, especially to make sure we can realign,” Baker said on Fox 5 Morning News recently. “There’s transparency. There’s efficiency in service and that’s what we need here in Prince George’s County to make progress.”
As the parent of three children who have been educated in Prince George’s County Public Schools, Baker is in a unique position. He knows the schools, how they work and how they fail, supporters of the measure said.
“We have had at least six superintendents in the last 10 years,” he said on the news program. “We need stability and this is the best way to do it.”
Baker said he hopes to have the proposed legislation approved by legislators by the close of this year’s General Assembly session in April.
The new plan, unveiled March 15, would make the superintendent a cabinet level position reporting directly to the county executive.
Sentiment in the county is polarized by the proposal.
While some Baker critics bemoan the potential loss of representation, supporters of the plan insist dramatic change is needed in the system.
The proposed takeover is similar what was tried in the District of Columbia under then-mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007 when he appointed veteran educator Michelle Rhee schools’ chancellor and reduced the school board’s responsibilities. The aggressive change in school governance yielded minor improvements in District schools and major conflict with teachers, parents and education advocates.
According to Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Dist. 47), lawmakers in Annapolis are expected to see the amendment added to HB 1107, a school board task force bill, by week’s end.
“The amendment has been drafted in its initial form. We’re all taking a look at it to see what needs to be changed,” Ivey said. “The goal is to have the House and Senate work on it together so after the Senate does the official amendment, by the time it comes back to our side, we can concur.”
Ivey says the majority of the Prince George’s Delegation supports the measure, but Del. Aisha Braveboy (D-Dist. 25) wants to ensure the measure is completely analyzed by legislators before approval.
“Because this is such a significant policy change we have to thoroughly vet it and look at best practices from other jurisdictions,” Braveboy said. “If we believe that student achievement is important, we need to make sure…Certainly when we’re taking the power of an elected body away, we should be clear that we think this is a better decision.”
The school board would lose several responsibilities with Baker’s plan. In a statement, the board shared their opposition to the proposed change. “This is a bad bill that is being pushed through the legislature under the guise of education reform and without the benefit of a public hearing. The public’s voice will not be heard. Our students, teachers and employees will have no say in this decision. Mr. Baker’s proposal reduces public oversight of schools and voids the rights of our parents, students and labor unions.”
However school board member Carletta Fellows, who was recently censured by the board, has expressed support for Baker’s takeover initiative citing the need to restrict the board from handling the budget or selecting the system’s next superintendent.
Education advocates are falling on both sides of the issue with some excited about a new approach to schools and others concerned about centralized control and Baker’s qualification to run a school system.
“What makes him think he’s qualified to manage a school system?” a charter school teacher asked the Afro. “You’re still going to have to hold the people in the schools responsible and accountable and it has to start with the superintendent and the people out in the trenches, not with a county executive who has the county to manage.”
Some parents of students in the system are frustrated with the state of schools and are hopeful this initiative will improve academic outcomes.
“I’m in complete support of the takeover [and] our county executive has now come forward with a proposal to afford us the opportunity to see some improvement in the education system,” said Tonya Lawson, PTSA president at Oxon Hill High School. “Quite frankly [as] parents we’re appalled and we feel that we’re in a state of crisis. This is an emergency, this is urgent.”
The NAACP is strongly opposed to the measure and questions Baker’s claims of increased accountability and his swift pace to get the measure to Annapolis for approval. “If this was being contemplated they should have presented it to the General Assembly a year ago,” said county NAACP first vice president Cassandra Freeman.
“I’m for having part of the board as an elected board and part appointed but I think the money needs to go to the county council,” said Linda Thornton-Thomas, a former school board member and a member of the Consortium of Concerned Organizations. “I think the county executive should have some oversight, as well. I just don’t think it needs to be completely with the county executive. It should be shared.”
On March 19, the school board held a meet-and-greet session with three superintendent candidates which included the current Interim Superintendent Dr. Alvin Crawley. Baker has made it clear that if the candidates do not meet the county’s qualifications, a new search should be conducted.
Lawson, parent of an Oxon Hill sophomore, pointed out the critical importance of improving our schools saying, “Our children deserve more for the $1.7 billion that we invest in them.”