Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker’s proposal to take control of the county’s school system might not only shake up schools, it could also be a game-changer for his political career, political observers say.
“I think this could affect his re-election,” said community activist Judy Robinson, who believes Baker’s plan could cause him to lose support. “I would never like to see all that consolidated under one individual. I like Rushern Baker. I don’t like him as Julius Caesar.”
This week, Baker announced a plan to restructure the school system leadership, putting the superintendent under the county executive’s supervision and reducing the role of the school board. The move has drawn criticism from some who say the plan would give Baker too much power.
Others expressed surprise, saying Baker has largely been successful in lowering crime and addressing economic development; taking over the school system could bring negative marks on an otherwise successful record if the plan doesn’t pan out.
The school takeover may not significantly impact Baker’s chances of re-election if the 2010 county executive race numbers are any indication.
In that race, Baker received 49.93 percent, or 41,352 votes compared to Michael Jackson’s 32.71 percent, or 30,788 votes and Samuel Dean’s 12.46 percent, or 11,728 votes. Baker had a strong showing in the 2006 county executive race where his 47.45 percent, or 47,431 votes, were not enough to overcome the incumbent, Jack Johnson’s 52.55 percent, or 52,529 votes.
Earnest Moore, president of the Prince George’s County PTA Council, said the move was upsetting to his organization, which includes about 7,000 members in PTAs across the county.
Taking some of the school system’s independence could lead to a loss of votes for Baker, Moore said.
“It does not make the community feel comfortable that you just took something from them,” Moore said. “I think Baker has some great ideas, but this one, I think has not played out well.”
Baker is on record as seeking a second term in 2014, when his current term expires, said Scott Peterson, a spokesman for the county executive. Baker could not be immediately reached for comment.
Despite potential negative reactions from voters, Baker made the move because he believes it is best for the county, and he is optimistic voters will support the change if it improves education by 2014, Peterson said.
“The county executive is confident that he has the public’s support on this issue and that he has the support in Annapolis,” Peterson said.
Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly, chairwoman of the county’s House delegation, believes the change could be positive for Baker. Prince George’s students’ test scores have ranked near or at the bottom on the state standardized tests for years, and although the school board oversees the education system, voters tend to hold Baker and county leaders responsible for the state of local schools, Ivey said. Ivey added that she did not think Baker’s proposal comes with any future political agenda.
“Sure, anything good he’s able to accomplish benefits him in the future politically, but he’s got three kids who graduated from Prince George’s schools and he’s committed to making them better,” Ivey said. “There’s always that risk of it not working out, but if you take the safe route, what have you accomplished? That’s how he’s been in his whole political career. He’s been willing to do something unpopular to get something accomplished.”
There’s a great deal of time before the election for voters’ opinions to change, said Terry Speigner, chairman of the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee. While education along with public safety are big issues for voters, the economy will be the No. 1 issue, he said.
“People vote with their pocketbook first and foremost,” he said. “If the economy is doing badly, that trumps pretty much everything else.”
State Sen. Victor Ramirez (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly said he doubted any one single issue would derail Baker’s re-election bid as long as voters see he is trying to improve the county.
“When you’re trying to do the right thing, I don’t think it can be seen as political suicide,” Ramirez said. “He’s trying to be a leader, and education is our No. 1 priority. ... He wants our system to be one of the best in the nation. I don’t believe it’s a power kick. He’s trying to move the county forward.”