Prince George’s County, Md., last month became the first county in the nation to provide the chief executive authority to appoint a superintendent and school board members, power that was approved by the state legislature earlier this year with the intent of better aligning the work of the school district and the county.
In April, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill allowing Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III to appoint a superintendent—who would also be a member of Baker’s cabinet—and an additional three members to the county school board. The county council was also given authority to appoint one school board member, so four members of the now 13-person board are selected by the county government. Under the legislation, the remaining nine members will still be elected, though Baker has the authority to appoint replacements if any elected member vacates their office before their term expires.
According to the National Association of Counties (NACo), Prince George’s County—which lies on the eastern border of Washington, D.C, and is home to nearly 900,000 people and 125,000 students who attend the county’s schools—is the first county in the United States where the executive has that level of control over a formerly autonomous school district. It is similar to some cities, such as Philadelphia, where the mayor appoints some of the school board's members.
“We came in thinking we could use the bully pulpit to get people to work together,” Baker says. “But the problem came in when it was actually time to sit down and coordinate our efforts.”
A few crises were cited by those involved as an impetus for the change, but one in particular brought the issue into focus for Baker and his administration. Six high school students had been killed in a six-month span that ended in February 2013. Baker called together a special task force that included almost every county agency, including the independently elected state’s attorney and county sheriff, to discuss how to stop the violence. (The students were not killed while at school).
The only group that didn’t join the special task force was the school board, who said they couldn’t spare any senior staff. The board did send some security officers to an initial meeitng, but because the problem wasn’t actually related to school security per se, Baker thought the board should have been better represented. He had no way to force their participation, though. Within a month, Baker had lobbied to have the bill introduced in the state legislature that would change the county’s school governance structure.
Baker appointed his new board members in June. Some of his choices were controversial—one appointee, Segun Eubanks, is Baker’s former brother-in-law, and the Hispanic community criticized a lack of Hispanic representation in a county where nearly one-quarter of the student population is Hispanic. But Baker's selection of Kevin Maxwell, a county native and long-time administrator in the school district, as superintendent earned nearly universal praise. It even won over some members of a community coalition that had attempted to gin up a referendum for the November ballot calling for the law's repeal. They failed to gather enough signatures for the petition by a late May deadline, though.
“A lot of people weren't totally pleased with how the school system was being run, but we just didn't want one person having so much control,” says Debbie Sell, a Bowie resident who helped circulate the petition. “But I’m pleased with this selection. There’s a lot more optimism now.”
Some opponenets haven't been assauged by Baker's picks, however. Janis Hagey and David Cahn, who joined Sell in the petition effort, say they still believe that the changes are undemocratic, give too much power to Baker and Maxwell, and should therefore be repealed. They also question whether the new governance structure will have the benefits that Baker promises.
"The focus has not been on what we need to do improve things in the classroom, but on his ability to appoint people to very important policymaking positions," Hagey says. "There's been no vision of what they would do when they get there."
Their group, Citizens for an Elected Board, will have to take their fight to the state legislature, though, because Maryland law only allows that one opportunity for opponents of a new law to get a referendum on the ballot.
With the appointees in their posts, Baker’s office is starting the real work of better coordinating the relevant county agencies—health, social services and police, to name a few—and the school district. The centerpiece of that effort is the county’s Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative, a holistic plan to improve five of the county’s most disadvantaged areas, which shares some similarities with the well-known Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City. The county has already launched specific programs under the initiative that would benefit from the school district’s participation, such as a new afterschool program at a community center, the construction of new fences at troubled schools and a mobile meals program targeted at the county’s hungriest children.
The advantage of having handpicked school board members to help carry out those plans is twofold, Baker says. First, he can rely on their participation in a way that he couldn’t in the past. But perhaps more important, the county’s residents will now be justified in holding Baker and his administration accountable for what happens at the schools. If the neighborhoods initiative doesn’t work, or the school system otherwise doesn’t improve, Baker won’t be able to say that he didn’t have a say in the school’s policies.
“Now we’re able to have this seamless conversation without a barrier saying that we have no right to be there,” Baker says. “People already think we’re accountable, so why shouldn’t we be able to use all of our government to make things better?”