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.