For education activist David L. Cahn, the battle over the structure of the Prince George’s County school system is all too familiar.
He formed the organization, Citizens for an Elected Board, in 2002, when then-delegate Rushern L. Baker III (D) led the battle to replace the county’s elected school board with an appointed board — and Cahn is now opposing Baker’s plan as county executive to take over the school system.
“The school board would be essentially powerless,” Cahn said. “Why bother keeping it? It would only be for show.”
Community reaction to Baker’s plan — which would give the county executive authority to hire and supervise the schools superintendent and refocus the school board to work on academic policy and parental engagement — has been largely divided.
Under Baker’s proposal, the nine-member school board would remain elected, but would add six appointed members to the board: three voting members representing business, education and parents, and three nonvoting members representing the county’s institutions of higher learning, according to Christian Rhodes, the county executive’s education policy adviser.
The County Council would oversee the school system’s budget and capital improvement programs.
Tonya Lawson, president of the Oxon Hill High PTSA, said she fully supports Baker’s proposal.
“I think the county school system has been struggling for almost 20 years,” Lawson said. “I believe the county executive’s proposal is the first step” to improving education.
Lawson said Prince George’s has lingered near or at the bottom of the state on test scores and said a big part of the problem has been the “culture” of the school system, which she said has promoted a lack of transparency and communication with parents.
“Parents are angry. The time has come when the status quo is not acceptable and we need to see a change,” Lawson said. “There’s more we need to hear about this proposal, but County Executive Baker is affording us an opportunity to head in the right direction.”
The school board issued a statement Tuesday opposing Baker’s proposal, saying, “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.”
Board member Peggy Higgins (Dist. 2) was more direct, saying the timing of the proposal seemed structured to prohibit discussion.
“This is extremely disruptive, not just to the school system as a whole, but to our students,” Higgins said. “Had this been part of the best plan to deal with this, why not bring it forward earlier? [Former superintendent William] Hite left eight and a half months ago, why not bring it forward then?”
The proposal, which might be attached as an amendment to other legislation before the General Assembly this session, is in the process of being drafted, said Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Baker’s office.
Kenneth Haines, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, the county teachers’ union, said his organization could not comment until they reviewed the proposed legislation.
Earnest Moore, president of the Prince George’s PTA Council, noted that no legislation had yet been brought before the public, but said the PTA Council opposes what it has read in the media.
“The PTA Council opposes any change or structure of changes to the board,” Moore said.
Moore expressed concern that a superintendent who answered only to the county executive would have unfettered power.
“It would be a major, major issue. What power would the school board have over that?” Moore said. “Right now, the school board works closely with the superintendent. The relationship that we have built here is a cooperative arrangement between the administration and the PTAs. This proposal would change all that.”
Despite Cahn’s support for the current board structure, he has also been critical of board actions such as budget practices, transparency and a proposal to have the school system copyright students’ work.
“The school board has not helped itself by the way it is governing, but the remedy for the mistakes of democracy is not less democracy, but more,” he said, noting that four board seats are up for election next year. “You fix things at the ballot box.”