When it comes to education in Prince Georgeís County, like it or not, the buck stops at the county executiveís office.
Although the post has little to do with the general operations of the school system — outside of approving its budget — the top officeholder tends to get the blame for any education-related problems. Come campaign season, those vying for the executive and County Council seats spend an inordinate amount of time explaining to residents that there is little they can do to alter Prince Georgeís schools, which continue to score among the lowest in the state on standardized tests.
So itís no surprise that County Executive Rushern L. Baker III — who is no stranger to crossing the education line (as a state delegate years ago, he took the lead on disbanding a dysfunctional county school board) — has decided to take a more hands-on approach to county education.
This summer, he appointed a 12-member commission to recommend programs and partnerships to improve the school system. And, according to his education policy adviser, Baker hopes to fill a void caused by the departure of Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who is leaving Sept. 30 to lead the Philadelphia school system; the loss of Hiteís deputy director, Bonita Coleman-Potter, who left July 1 to lead a school district in Mississippi; and the resignation, effective Aug. 15, of the school systemís chief of human resources.
Understandably, however, Bakerís effort raises red flags.
Ten years ago, when Baker spearheaded the effort to replace a school board that had become ineffective due to infighting, protests were held stating that he overrode votersí election decisions by pushing for appointed leadership. And residents long have alleged that political influence has allowed some communities to receive better school resources and get quicker funding for new educational facilities over less-connected areas in greater need.
Top that off with Bakerís predecessor spending time in a federal prison for corruption, and itís understandable that residents would be wary of the county executiveís aggressive approach.
Baker realizes that much of his work on the economic and crime fronts is for naught without education progress. Baker campaigned promising to visit schools regularly, which he has, aiming to make himself available to school leaders and witness conditions for himself. And he proved the importance of schools in his tenure as a state delegate, when his decision to disband the school board was considered ďpolitical suicide,Ē but he did it anyway.
Granted, the notion that Baker is needed to step in during the superintendentís absence seems to be a slap in the face to the school board, which supervises Hite. It gives the incorrect impression that board chairwoman Verjeana Jacobs and the rest of the council are merely figureheads.
But, egos aside, Baker and the committeeís involvement is a welcome addition, and itís not such an unusual arrangement. Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has a commission that helps advise the school board. In Anne Arundel, a commission — which includes a member selected by the county executive — appoints the school board.
And given that five of the nine school board seats are up for election in November, itís possible that Prince Georgeís could have such a major upheaval in school leadership that Bakerís involvement would provide a sense of stability.
Critics also must keep in mind that Bakerís involvement, while more formal, still would be limited to recommendations. The school board would continue to make all educational decisions.
Among the benefits, having a commission focused on the school system is likely to help the executive and council have a better understanding of education matters — and reduce confusion about schools spending during budget season.
And hopefully, the committee will help officials reach compromises on issues that generally place them at odds (remember the exasperating school board battle in 2005 to build a large Henry A. Wise High School gymnasium in Upper Marlboro even though county leaders were against it and funding wasnít available?).
If Baker were plotting a school system takeover, a la former Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian M. Fenty in 2007, there would be cause for panic.
But Bakerís plan is far from an education invasion; itís about improving collaboration and consistency.