At public events and inside schools, William R. Hite Jr. has been the face of Prince George’s County Public Schools for nearly four years.
As he prepares to leave to take the top job in the School District of Philadelphia, County Executive Rushern Baker is looking to step in as the figurehead in the search for Hite’s replacement, according to his education policy adviser, Christian Rhodes.
Rhodes said that there is a leadership gap in the school system as Hite’s deputy, Bonita Coleman-Potter, left for a job leading a Mississippi school district and Baker is looking to fill that gap.
“He’s going to take a very active and aggressive role in education in the county,” Rhodes said. “Although what that looks like is still being determined.”
But some worry that Baker’s increased interest and participation in the superintendent search and education in general could be stepping on the toes of the elected school board.
In June, Baker appointed a 12-member Commission for Education Excellence, a body tasked with recommending innovative educational programs and partnerships to county leaders, and is slated to have its first meeting in the coming months.
But Rhodes said the search for the superintendent is in the hands of the school board — a point board chairwoman Verjeana M. Jacobs (Dist. 5) wants to make clear, as well.
“The leadership role in the process will be [taken by] the board of education,” Jacobs said. “The county executive will have the part of stakeholder.”
In neighboring school districts, the degree of influence executives have over school policy is varied, from almost total control as is the mayor in Washington, D.C. to an appointed commission on children’s issues in Montgomery County.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has a commission on Children and Youth, which advises Leggett, the County Council, the Board of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.
In Anne Arundel County, school board members are appointed by the governor of Maryland from a pool of candidates, which are nominated by a commission of 11 members. One member is appointed by the county executive.
While in the House of Delegates in 2002, Baker pushed a bill that restructured the school board from an elected body to a board appointed by the governor and the county executive, an arrangement that was in place until 2006, when the board was again restructured as an elected body.
Given the county executive’s history, Rhodes is adamant that Baker is not trying to take over the school board, and he supports the board “150 percent.”
Rhodes added that Baker can bring more attention to the search as an active participant.
“The board [of education] does not get the attention that it deserves,” Rhodes said. “The county executive wants to try to elevate that role and responsibility ... to show people how important they are not just to education, but to the county moving forward as a whole.”
David Cahn, founder of Citizens for an Elected Board, a group focused on school governance issues, said Baker is encroaching on what the law assigns to the school board, which includes hiring a superintendent.
“If he has good ideas, he should tell them, but that’s as far as it should go,” Cahn said.
Jacobs said the executive’s interest in education can be a good thing as they move forward with the search, which is slated to go into full swing in the spring. An interim superintendent will be named sometime around Aug. 15.
“This is such an important issue, it’s important to have all the stakeholders and elected officials put their arms around it,” Jacobs said.
When the school board is scheduled to begin holding community forums in October to discuss the process of searching for a new superintendent, Rhodes said that Baker, along with County Council members and state legislators, will be co-sponsors on the forums.
Rhodes called the collaboration a “new beginning” and a chance for all county leaders to focus on education.
“Sometimes it takes a situation like this to get everyone on board,” Rhodes said. “Everyone realizes how critical this next decision will be.”
Rhodes said Baker’s interest in county schools will not end with the hiring of a new superintendent, but he will continue to be involved through his education commission and by setting a budget agenda that prioritizes schools.
Baker’s presence and leadership might put the community at ease, said Leslie Hall, a former school board student member. But, Hall warned, having too many leaders jockeying for influence could open the process to political pressures.
“You want to be careful with having too many hands in the pot,” Hall said.
The leadership in the school system could see further changes; school board elections are in November, with five of the nine seats up for grabs. In April, primary elections saw strong showings by challengers in four of the five seats.
Jacobs said that the timing of the school board search and elections, while challenging, presents an opportunity for county leaders to work more collaboratively with the school board.
“If we miss that opportunity, then shame on us,” Jacobs said. “This opens the door to look at a different way of working together and supporting each other.”