Showdown in Annapolis: Proposed Changes for Prince George's County Schools

Gale Horton Gay | 3/27/2013, 11:25 a.m.

Baker said these changes will restore the public's confidence in the school system, assure accountability and help stem the exodus of families out of the county due to the school system's declining reputation and image. The school board's role would focus on academic policy and parental engagement under Baker's plan.

However, Verjeana Jacobs, chair of the school board, is vehemently opposed to Baker's plan, calling it an "attack" and a "surprise takeover of our school system."

"Since we first learned about this proposal a week ago, we have been asking for a copy of the bill," said Jacobs. "The county representatives kept telling us that there was [no] final copy available yet."

Jacobs also told delegates that she and Baker met the day before for a "frank, direct and sometimes vigorous discussion" and she offered to address his concerns without legislation but he rejected the offer.

Jacobs said she and the majority of the board are against the proposed legislation because it is a flawed process, bad policy and bad precedent. She said every statewide education organization - the principals association, the state teachers and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education - oppose the legislation.

"This is not just a local bill - it has serious statewide implications," said Jacobs.

A statement from the school board

She called Baker's move a "last-minute power grab" to which Baker retorted, "Power grab, really?" He added that the charter gives him authority over the school system budget and he doesn't have to grab power.

Delegates also asked how the proposed changes would affect contracts with labor unions, whether it would result in more superintendent turnover when new county executives take office and whether Baker and Jacobs would be able to work together going forward.

Jacobs said that progress is being made in the county, but acknowledged "we are not where we need to be."

However, one delegate told Jacobs that she and Prince George's school officials should stop bragging about the state's top educational rating, noting that the county is at the bottom.

"Maryland is No. 1," said the delegate. "Prince George's County is not No. 1."

Not all members of the Prince George's County School Board are opposed to the proposed change in structure.

School board member Carletta Fellows said the board doesn't function as a "dedicated and effective advocate" for children and is more concerned with personal attacks.

"I saw a place hostile to independent review, transparency, or accountability," said Fellows, who joined the board in December and was censured in January for asking too many questions.

She said decisions were routinely made with "embarrassingly limited information" that involved millions in spending, personnel, school security and curriculum issues.

"We can no longer afford to sit around and passively accept the further degradation and deterioration of our schools," said Fellows. "Therefore, I join County Executive Baker in his efforts to bring results and accountability to what I see as an urban school system in crisis."

Prior to the March 23 meeting Maryland Delegate Jolene Ivey, chair of the Prince George's Delegation, told the Washington Informer that she applauds Baker's efforts.

"I've attended a number of listening tours around the county with the county executive, and the issue raised by citizens over and over is the need to improve our schools," said Ivey. "Unfortunately, the current structure only allows the county exec very limited involvement with our school system - funding it. I feel that if the person in that position is to be held accountable for how the school system functions, it's necessary to grant that authority."

As he walked from the meeting, Rick Tyler of Camp Springs, who described himself as a parent advocate and said he had children and grandchildren who have attended Prince George's schools, said he wanted the county executive and school board members to "sit down, work this out and not legislate."

Rhonda Dallas of Oxon Hill, who also attended the meeting, said she had a child in a Prince George's County public school but moved him to a private school due to "deficiencies" she found at the school.

Dallas said she liked what she heard from Baker and favored it for "sustained improvement."

"Sometimes drastic change is needed," said Dallas.