Slates may determine board members

Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006

Political leaders in Prince George’s are currently engaged in private discussions concerning which candidates to support for the reconstituted county Board of Education. The outcome of these negotiations will shape the future of the county’s public school system and determine the success of recent efforts to upgrade its performance and public image.

The law re-establishing an elected school board in Prince George’s calls for five members to be chosen from individual districts and four more to fill at-large seats. In the Sept. 12 primary election, candidates for district seats will run only within their districts, while at-large candidates will appear on the ballot countywide. Altogether, 46 candidates have filed.

The primary will reduce the number of finalists to two in each district and eight at-large — all of whom will run countywide in the Nov. 7 general election.

Every state and county elected office, plus a U.S. Senate seat and all congressional seats, are on the ballot this year, many of them being hotly contested. Under these circumstances, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for school board candidates running independent of a leadership slate to raise the kind of money and gain the visibility necessary to run a countywide campaign. Faced with this multitude of candidates, many voters will make their choices based on the sample ballots and campaign literature they receive from top officials. Thus, endorsement by the leadership may be tantamount to election.

The return to an elected school board could be a milestone on the path toward a new era of educational excellence and improved public perceptions of Prince George’s and its public schools. Thus, it is essential elected leaders put aside narrow political considerations and choose candidates for their slates who possess the qualifications and character traits needed to ensure the new board meets the hopes of county citizens and acts with integrity and purpose.

In making their selections, they should use the following tests:

* All candidates selected for slates should have extensive experience in education and knowledge of educational issues. The board is not a place for beginners. Its members will face a steep learning curve to be able to make decisions and set policy for a $1.5 billion system with more than 130,000 students. Some minimum level of expertise is mandatory.

* Candidates must be willing and able to invest the extensive time and energy required. This includes, of course, not merely attending board and committee meetings, but preparing conscientiously, meeting frequently with individual citizens, civic organizations, other elected officials, and state agencies, and participating in professional organizations.

* Candidates must be committed to playing appropriate roles for board members – i.e., setting policy and assessing performance – and not interfering in the administration of the school system. Candidates who have narrow agendas, represent special interests, or wish to use the post merely as a springboard to higher office should be disqualified.

* Candidates must be committed to supporting new Schools CEO John Deasy in his efforts to improve the school system. Deasy has made a powerful positive impression in his short time on the job. He needs and deserves all of our support. Like anyone in his position, Deasy should and will be evaluated on his performance, but that process should be orderly and focused on his achievements in fostering progress by our students, the effectiveness of his administration and his plans for continued improvement.

* Candidates must be committed to developing strong, positive working relationships with other board members and a unified approach to what must be done to raise the stature of the system and student achievement. This requires that they represent the interests of all citizens of the county, not merely their individual districts or neighborhoods.

A lot is at stake. Let’s hope our political leaders recognize the importance of their decisions and act wisely.

David Merkowitz of Hyattsville is executive director of the Prince George’s Business-Education Alliance.