To break the silence, I’m please to let my followers know that I am submitting my application for the vacant School Board seat in District 9. Since the voters won’t have a say, I urge you to let District 9 Councilman Mel Franklin and County Executive know of your support for (or opposition to) my application. Either way, it’s important for your voices to be heard. While I won’t lay out all my reasons here for deciding to apply, I think most of them are well known if you have regularly followed my blog for the past three years. I will let you know of the outcome as soon as I am informed of it. Either way, know this: my application is not cloaked in personal ambition, political aspirations, or hidden agendas. As always, I have been and remain devoted to improving the performance of our public schools, making sure we invest our resources in the right places, and ensuring that we achieve the best outcomes for our children. I’ll be accountable to you (and the kids) for our results.
Submitted by RF
Dear Mr. Baker:
Now that the reorganization of the Prince George’s County Public Schools governing structure has been achieved, I want to wish you luck in your quest to improve our schools. While I continue to have some concerns about the reorganization and I was unhappy with the manner in which the legislative action was orchestrated, I realize we must all move on and help you and the new superintendent—whoever that may be—to succeed. Our children deserve nothing less.
As you ponder the selection of the new superintendent and the direction you want to take our schools, I—a PGCPS parent and PTA activist—want to provide you with my unsolicited advice about the kind of approach I would like to see:
- First and foremost, please leave decisions about instruction, curriculum, and testing to forward-looking real education experts who have learned from the mistakes of recent past all across our nation. Do not hire a superintendent who does not understand actual teaching and who is eager to implement the latest purely data-driven management crazes borrowed from the business world. I don’t want to drive our education system toward even more mindless, narrowly-focused continuous testing which alienates good teachers and does not produce well-rounded students.
- Second, do go boldly for administrative reforms that relate to the nuts and bolts of our school system and how it is run. Make the buses run on time, get rid of administrative waste, and weed out questionable contracts and contracting procedures. Use appropriate technologies to gain efficiencies. Demand effective and timely school-to-parent communications—the first and necessary element for enabling parental involvement.
- Treat teachers as professionals. Listen to them and provide them opportunities to influence how schools are run. Don’t come up with arbitrary compensation schemes that will make teachers accountable for conditions they have no control over. This does not mean you don’t demand accountability and high performance. But be a partner, not a punitive leader who is out to get teachers. Make PGCPS a place that values innovation and professionalism—an attractive place for good teachers to work.
- Do not abandon neighborhood schools. Most people want their children to attend the school in their own neighborhood—they just want those schools to be good. I do not want to see more charter schools. It is highly immoral to abandon some children in failing schools while providing the most active and/or lucky parents an opportunity to escape underperforming schools (even though there is no evidence that, on average, charter schools provide any better results than regular schools).
- Keep listening to the school board and its elected members. It is important to retain a venue for meaningful parent and resident input. No matter how competent a superintendent you find, he/she needs to be open to community input and feedback. After all, I know more about my child’s school than you or the superintendent ever will.
- Demand election reform. We must move away from a system that enables elected officials and party insiders to ensure that their preferred candidates always win down ballot races, such as elections for Board of Education members. Slates formed by incumbent elected officials and their “sample ballots” must go. We deserve to have real elections where all candidates must sink or swim based on their own merits.
- Realize there is no silver bullet. Real improvements in a school system take time and hard work. Miraculous sudden improvements in student achievement are likely the result of outright fraud or a rigged evaluation system designed to produce desired results.
Best of luck, Mr. Baker. I desperately want you to succeed.
Guest post by RF – a PGCPS parent and PTA activist
County Executive Rushern Baker is making a bid to take over Prince George’s County Public Schools, and it seems likely he will succeed in his effort. Clearly, our schools are not where we want them to be, so one can see a valid rationale and logic in Mr. Baker’s attempt to gain control of the system. On these grounds, my initial inclination is to support the change. However, for me to be solidly behind Mr. Baker’s power grab, I would need him to answer two questions:
1. What happened with the County Executive’s “Commission for Education Excellence”? Is the commission still active and has it made any specific recommendations? The commission’s web page is badly out of date, and I can find no record of it producing any publicly released recommendations. If Mr. Baker is unable to steer his hand-picked 12-person committee to produce meaningful results, I am very hesitant to hand over full control of a school system of more than 120,000 students to him.
2. What specific issues does Mr. Baker plan to address if he takes over the system? What type of reform agenda does Mr. Baker believe in? There is no evidence that changing a school system’s governance structure alone will have a positive impact on student achievement. “School reform” can take many forms—some of which I fully support and some of which I don’t want to see implemented in our county.
The manner in which Mr. Baker is going for the power grab does not sit well with me. If he intends to vigorously implement meaningful and thoughtful reforms, I nevertheless welcome the shake-up. But, until Mr. Baker can provide us with more details about his reform agenda, I am unable to lend my support to his attempt to gain control of PGCPS.
Shock and outrage have spread like a tornado throughout Prince George’s County since the announcement that County Executive Rushern Baker plans to take control of the public schools. My email inbox and Twitter feed have exploded with requests for comment, and I have crept out of blogger retirement to provide a few thoughts I have about this shift.
First, anyone who is genuinely surprised about the County Executive’s decision is not really paying attention. Perhaps the anger is rooted more in the way it was done, than the fact that it has been done. I’ve said privately, ever since the new school board was elected last fall, that the County Executive could, and would, not stand by silently and allow the status quo to be maintained.
As soon as Valentino-Smith’s bill was drafted in December, I knew that the General Assembly would not end its 90-day session without putting our County Executive firmly in control of the public school system. For those who hold out hope that a different outcome could be achieved by generating noisy public outcry, I say “it’s already a done deal.” The way in which the bill was passed through committee and is now poised for huge amendments on the Senate floor (with little public input) speaks to the County Executive’s vast knowledge as a state legislator and able manuevering to leverage the political system in his favor.
If you’re planning to attend the superintendent’s candidate forum — don’t. It’s also a waste of time. If any of those three candidates are destined to become our next superintendent, the County Executive would not be investing significant political capital to obtain control of our public schools. I’m not sure who the next superintendent will be, but it’s certainly not any of them.
Given that the County Executive will have control, the dealmaking is now in the details of what is being proposed. If you’re concerned about becoming engaged in what’s coming next, create a dialogue around these issues:
(1) Press for an Inspector General. Now, more than ever, we need an Inspector General. Now, the superintendent would have full control of a budget that is only reviewed by the County Executive, rather than the elected school board and the public. Think there’s not room for corruption there? County Executive Baker promised that we would have one within 30 days of taking office. We’re still waiting. The County Executive’s span of control in effectively managing all of those who are accountable to him will be an increasing challenge with the additional responsibility of overseeing the superintendent of public schools. When Dr. Hite was in charge, he had unfettered authority to expand the central office and did not hold his staff accountable for many of the problems that I’ve talked about on this blog. Many were overpaid, had bloated staff, handed out contractual services like candy, and made poor decisions that cost the system millions. These are all concerns that an IG could make sure are investigated and addressed.
(2) Make sure we have input on who is appointed to the School Board. Others, such as my colleague and advisor Diane Russell of PG-Politics, have accurately pointed out that the County Executive led the way to creating an appointed board during our last experiment with this structure, and it failed miserably (I encourage you to read her opinions regarding this issue here). People were appointed through political patronage and ended up hiring a superintendent who was sent to federal prison for corrupt behavior. Of course, the language in this bill states that the appointees will be selected for their vast knowledge of education and management, but we all know that’s not what happens. The bill needs to state that the appointees will be publicly vetted with a hearing. County Executive Baker currently has full control of County Council after politically working behind the scenes to ensure that Andrea Harrison would have a second year as chair, rather than passing the gavel to Eric Olson as should have been done. The precedent that was set allows him to continue setting the stage for his supporters on Council to rubber-stamp his appointments. The public could play a valuable role in challenging the status quo of political patronage and puppeteer government.
(3) If you want a more effective, and less corrupt, School Board, get involved in our political system. We need great candidates to run. We need to financially invest in them. We need to knock on doors for them. We need to wake the sleeping electorate and help them understand that without their informed vote, partnership with schools, and protection of their significant taxpayer investment in the public schools, it hurts all of us. An underperforming school system consistently hurts the image of the county. It limits our ability to attract good economic development. Poor education of our youth leads to limited professional opportunities and increased crime. We are all hurt by those outcomes. As many of you know, my children do not attend the public schools. I am one of those parents that is still waiting for the schools to get better, and at this point prefer a faith-based private school for my children. However, I strongly believe in the value of high-quality public schools, and know we cannot move forward as a county without making sure that we have this problem solved first. That is a challenge we must all own and collectively tackle together, and until we do that, there’s not going to be significant achievement on any other front.
Here’s a final thought: If you don’t like the way County Executive Baker has taken control of the schools, then examine and critique the political system and complain about it in its entirety — because it’s irreparably broken. It cannot, and does not, operate in a way that demonstrates concern for transparency or the public interest. It is designed solely to benefit, and keep, those in power who align with political party bosses. Perhaps this is true throughout our political system, but in Maryland in particular, little consideration or concern is paid to their investors (taxpayers) who should be most interested in the outcomes. Unfortunately, as I have stated in previous blog posts, and is a consistent theme throughout my written materials, we are to blame for the way the system works. We rarely vote with an informed point of view (especially down ballot for County Council and the School Board), and we rely on those already have political power and money to inform and control our votes. That is unfortunate, and until that changes, nothing else will.
Despite the fact that the School Board election is at the bottom of your ballot, your vote here will matter most in choosing the right people to guide us and shape the future of our county. If you have not already voted, and have not thought much about who to vote for in your district, now is the time that I can hopefully help you make up your mind. Here are my thoughts on the candidates, after following them and watching the actions of our current school board members closely over the past two years.
District 1: With the departure of Rosalind Johnson, I believe we have two strong candidates to replace her and District 1 seems poised to have good representation regardless of the person who is chosen. Among the two, I give a slight edge to David Murray. While I think Zabrina Epps has great qualifications, I am concerned that she is too closely allied with our current members and will not take a stand of her own on issues that matter. Sources tell me that Jeana Jacobs, Donna Hathaway-Beck, and other current members have been closely advising her, and that means she could owe them her vote down the road. Additionally, I have always questioned her motivation for holding elected office. Her husband ran an unsuccessful campaign for County Council just two years ago, and I am always concerned that candidates use the School Board as a stepping stone to higher office, rather than staying focused soley on their mission to improve our schools. David Murray is a bright young man who has worked hard to build connections throughout District 1, knows his constituency well, and could bring fresh ideas to the school system. His support of an external audit for PGCPS is something that I strongly support.
District 4: Micah Watson is the stronger of the two candidates running in District 4. I like the fact that he has children in our public schools, something that most other Board members do not have. I think when you are a parent, you have more at stake with each decision that you make about policies and the budget for our schools. My one concern with his candidacy, which Watson notes as a strength, is his devotion to holding elected office for just about anything. I hope if he is elected, he will stay focused on PGCPS fully for his term, and not get distracted by other opportunities that may arise for seeking higher office. Patricia Eubanks is sincere in her passion for public schools, but she does not seem to have any history of standing up for anything, but rather following her colleagues on most things that really matter.
District 5: It’s no secret that I have many concerns about our Board Chair, Jeana Jacobs. Her questionable connections to corrupt officials in our county, her lack of judgment on pushing for relocation to Washington Plaza, and her record of failed policies in leading the School Board should give all voters reason to choose someone new in this District. Fortunately, voters have a better choice in Raheela Ahmed. This intelligent, committed, and focused young lady has endured endless attacks about being too young and lacking the experience that is needed to represent this district. Even the Washington Post used Jeana Jacobs’ attack line that she would need “on-the-job” training, which just wasn’t fair to her or the voters of District 5 who know what is really at stake. Although Ahmed faces nearly insurmountable odds because of the large group of inattentive voters who will take the word of other elected officials or the Washington Post and push the lever for Jacobs, I really hope Ahmed can overcome that challenge and win this race. It would not only help the school board by moving them in a new direction, but it would finally make the case that voters cannot be manipulated by money, cozy connections with the political establishment, or relentless and unmerited attacks on a qualified challenger.
District 7: I am not thrilled with either choice for School Board in this District. Those of you who are familiar with my track record of advocacy before the School Board are well aware that Henry Armwood has questioned or bullied me every step of the way, and has treated constituents who challenge him in a similar manner. His recent comment to the Washington Post that a college degree “is just a piece of paper” and that what really matters is to elect school board members with experience reinforces his insecurity with his own qualifications for the job. I believe his insecurity has led to the condescending attitude he has toward others who question or disagree with his approach, and this will be an ongoing problem if he is re-elected. While Carletta Fellows also has some good ideas, her motivation for being on the School Board is highly questionable. She says she cares about kids, but has spent little time explaining why. That’s because she has spent most of her real career working in politics, and is a bit of an opportunist when it comes to running for elected office. I have observed her activity in county politics for several years, and she has yet to make a strong impression on me as someone that would earn my vote. She has worked for everyone from Donna Edwards (in constituent relations, which is something Edwards never been praised for), to campaign manager for Mark Spencer’s miserably failed bid for State’s Attorney in 2010, to a policy advisor for Councilman Mel Franklin, a position which abruptly and mysteriously ended after less than a year. Check out her profile and see her short commitment to every political position she’s held over the past several years, and ask yourself if she’s really the kind of person who would be committed to your child’s education.
District 8: With Andre Nottingham dropping out of the race, Edward Burroughs will earn a well-deserved second term on the School Board. Hopefully after the election, he will have some new allies to support him in moving the school system in a new direction.
I should have been grinning from ear to ear today, and a small part of me was very happy. When I heard the news that the Chief Financial Officer, Matthew Stanski, and Chief Legal Counsel, Roger Thomas, had been fired from PGCPS, I was shocked (because PGCPS is not well known for doing that) but not surprised (because I’ve been asking serious questions about the PGCPS budget since I started this blog). Given that Synthia Shilling had been overpaying employees, showing unscrupulous behavior, and actually committing serious mistakes as the Chief of Human Resources, it’s no surprise that people associated with helping her to keep this going had finally been let go. The fact that they were fired for trying to hand her a $100,000 check after she had resigned just has me thinking “You can’t make this stuff up!”
I hate to say “I told you so” but I was also right. Shilling was never a good hire, and those around her knew what was going on but did nothing to stop it. Now we know that her colleagues actually tried to continue helping her even after she had been forced to resign. Although I’m happy that they are all gone from the school system, I have to wonder how we keep managing to hire these kinds of people. Surely we knew Shilling’s record of failure, because she was forced out in Anne Arundel County before we hired her in Prince George’s County. Was there actually no one more qualified that her for the job of General Counsel (which she only maintained for a short time before being reassigned as Chief of Human Resources)? Was there no one better than Andre Hornsby for the job of Superintendent? Were we so quick and desperate for a Chief Financial Officer that we went ahead and hired someone recently out of grad school?
I ask myself these questions, and you should too, because I’m extremely concerned. It’s not only our tax dollars at stake here, the very future of our children’s education is being tossed around and joked about, as we put a merry-go-round of corrupt leaders into senior positions, where they mock the public trust and are on the take with public money. When is enough really enough for us? As Samuel Jackson said in a recent advertisement for President Obama, WTFU! Stop sitting back on your heels, feeling powerless to stop this train in its tracks.
Our School Board members and leaders they choose are in positions that are too important to ignore. If we, as voters and constituents, are not holding these people accountable, who will? Don’t be surprised to see County Executive Rushern Baker use this latest example as the political fodder he needs to reinstate the appointed School Board, or simply take over the system himself. I don’t see that turning out much better for us, with his failed promise to establish an Inspector General or ensure that there are serious consequences for those who do not act ethically. A lot is at stake here, and if we sit back and choose to ignore it, we will all pay the price.
Thank you to D.C. Russell of PG-Politics for sharing.
A sampling of past press coverage:
- Sun, 16 Oct 2004: “Ethics questions also were raised when Hornsby worked in N.Y. … Prince George’s school board members say they knew about questions raised by Hornsby’s interactions with vendors in Yonkers … But they said the board did not deem the issues serious enough to disqualify Hornsby … ‘At the end, there was no impropriety, from what we looked at,’ said Chairwoman Beatrice Tignor.
- Sun, 20 Apr 2005: “‘I never knew what was going on,’ said school board Chairwoman Beatrice P. Tignor, who has vigorously defended Hornsby for months”
- Post, 27 May 2005: “Board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor, who led the search committee that picked Hornsby two years ago, said the board did not force him out.”
- Post, 7 Jun 2005: “Tignor (Upper Marlboro) and board member Robert O. Duncan (Laurel) reiterated their view that paying Hornsby $125,000 in severance, plus a year of continued health benefits, was a prudent move.”
- Post, 23 Jun 2005: “Tignor Says Chief’s Job Isn’t for Her; Thornton, Brown Leave Door Open”
- Post, 8 Jan 2006: “Tignor has said repeatedly that she is not seeking to replace departed schools chief Andre J. Hornsby. But she has not ruled out accepting the post if …”
Tignor’s role in hiring Hornsby despite a questionable background, vigorously defending him as increasingly serious allegations became public, and paying him off when it became clear that he was a crook, all lead me to believe that she is sadly lacking in judgment and either does not recognize or winks at unethical and corrupt conduct. It was about the same time when one of our assistant superintendents was convicted of drug money laundering. Tignor may be competent and academically qualified, but does she have the kind of integrity and ethical sense we need, or will misbehavior again be tolerated if she is made interim superintendent..