Community members are pushing back against a perceived takeover of the Prince George’s County school system with a petition drive to force the issue to a countywide vote.
Deborah Sell, chairwoman of Prince Georgians for an Informed Citizenry, said her organization, along with Citizens for an Elected Board and the Prince George’s County NAACP are mounting a petition campaign against House Bill 1107.
HB 1107, which was signed into law April 9, gives the county executive the power to choose the next school superintendent and to appoint three members to the school board, with the County Council appointing a fourth. The superintendent would have broad powers over the day-to-day functioning of the school system, over school consolidation and over school boundary changes.
“I think the county executive understands that there are some citizens who are in favor of moving this to a referendum vote, and they are well within their rights to do so,” said Barry Hudson, communications manager for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III. “Our office is very focused on making sure our schools are the best they can be.”
The groups will be conducting a public meeting at 7 p.m. today at the county teacher’s union building at 8008 Marlboro Pike in Forestville.
“We truly feel it is important to invite people on all sides of this issue,” Sell said. “We want to hear from people who support the bill as well as those who oppose it.”
School board chair Verjeana Jacobs (Dist. 5) said she understands many residents are frustrated with the way the bill was passed so quickly without public input. She said the board has taken no position on the bill, “but we support the right of county citizens to do so.”
Sell said the coalition received an opinion April 23 from Assistant State’s Attorney Jeffrey Darsie that the petition would be considered a local issue and requires the signatures of at least 24,000 Prince George’s County residents by June 30.
Sells said a one-page synopsis of the bill was submitted for approval to the state attorney’s office. If approval of the wording is received, the signature drive can begin.
In order to prevent the legislation from going into effect June 1, the group must submit at least one-third of the required total — or 8,000 signatures — by the close of business May 31, said Janis Hagey of Bowie, co-chair of Citizens for an Elected Board.
If the coalition manages to get at least 8,000 signatures by May 31, and the remaining 16,000 or more by June 30, the bill would go to a county referendum vote, which would keep it from going into effect in the meantime, Hagey said.
Baker’s office is not considering the possibility of a delay in the bill’s enactment, Hudson said.
“That’s further down the road than we’re looking,” he said. “We’re remaining focused on the decision made in Annapolis and going forward from there.”
Hagey said her organization opposes the bill because of the power it gives the county executive in appointing members.
“We believe that these are political appointees, not accountable to the children and taxpayers, the voters of Prince George’s County. It dilutes the authority of elected board members,” Hagey said. “It was enacted at the last minute with no real citizen input.”
Sell said she supported the original bill, which would have created a task force looking at board membership but said she thinks the final HB 1107 goes too far.
“I’m just fearful that it gives one person, the superintendent, far too much power,” she said.