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Compromise reached in school board reform bill

PG Delegation 2ANNAPOLIS – With just a month to go in the Maryland General Assembly session, Prince George’s County school board reform advocates are hailing a compromise that may see some of their goals realized.

On March 10, a heavily-amended version of PG 402-17 passed the Prince George’s House Delegation with a 16-1 vote, with three members excusing themselves under House rules. The bill has been touted as a repeal to HB1107, which gave the county executive broad powers over the school system and created a hybrid elected-appointed board. But the amendments – which Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, chair of the Prince George’s County Delegation Education Subcommittee, said basically amounted to a rewrite of the bill – keep the same structure in place while adding provisions supporters say give the elected members a stronger voice on the board of education.

She said many stakeholders were involved in the amendment process, including delegates and education leaders

“On behalf of the education committee, I think we want to thank Del. (Carolyn) Howard for bringing this important issue before us to help begin to dialogue,” Valentino-Smith said. “Ms. (Theresa) Dudley, Ms. (Doris) Reed, and the members of the school board that spent a lot of time helping us understand… (also) Ms. Demetria Tobias and the county.”

The three provisions in the amended PG 402-17 state that the elected board members shall choose from among themselves the board’s vice-chair (instead of having the county executive choose the vice-chair); that a majority of three-fifths of the board members is needed to override a decision by the chief executive officer (CEO), down from the current two-thirds; and that the report on the performance of schools under the hybrid structure is due in October, months earlier than the December deadline detailed in HB1107.

“We did, for purposes of the delegation, bring the report date up to October so that we will have plenty of time to continue to work on this very important issue,” Valentino-Smith said.

Howard (D-24) is the House sponsor for the bill, and said the end result is a compromise the delegation has been hoping to forge for months.

“What originally was in the school board bill came from the citizens. I included that in the legislation, and then it was vetted. And different members and other citizens said, ‘well we don’t want this, we want that,’” Howard said. “What ended up in the bill was the consensus of all those people, things they could agree on. And that’s why we have the bill moving forward at this time.”

Del. Anne Healey (D-22), the sole no vote, said she valued the stability the new structure had provided.

“I really think the structure that we have has been stable for a number of years and we’re really starting to see results from that,” Healey said. “I don’t think we should be changing it.”

The three members who excused themselves were Dels. Angela Angel, Michael Jackson and Dereck Davis. Dels. Erek Barron, Jay Walker and Joseph Vallario were not present at the time of the vote.

HB1107 was passed in 2013 after a substantial effort from County Executive Rushern Baker, III, who believed the school system could be improved by a shared responsibility between the school administration and the county government. The bill gave the county executive power to appoint three members of the board, while giving the county council a board appointment as well. It also allowed the county executive to fill any vacancies on the board by appointment instead of holding special elections.

In addition, the education bill gave Baker the authority to appoint the board’s chair and vice chair and gave the newly-appointed CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) sole ability to close schools while requiring a two-thirds vote from the board to change or alter any CEO decision or proposal.

The amendments passed by the delegation that would now require only three-fifths to overturn a CEO proposal changes the necessary threshold by only one vote, but some on the board of education believe that one vote to be crucial in certain situations.

Boardmembers Edward Burroughs, III, Raaheela Ahmed, David Murray and Beverly Anderson advocated hard for the board of education to vote for a favorable view of the three amendments during the March 9 board of education meeting. Tobias, the board’s legislative counsel, had brought the amendments before the board during the legislative update and said she, as well as the board’s policy committee, suggested an unfavorable view of the bill.

“The recommendation that is before you today from the policy committee is to oppose the bill as amended on the two items. That would include the elected members only selecting the vice-chair and also the change of the super majority vote from two-thirds to three-fifths,” Tobais said.

However, Anderson, who learned firsthand how one vote can derail a movement when her motion to add math and reading coaches to a school budget in previous years failed by just one vote, said while she is generally in favor of what HB1107 changed, the three amendments proposed by the PG Delegation Education Committee hit on the alterations she would like to see to the system.

“I believe in a hybrid board. I believe that the hybrid board has truly been an enhancement to the board. I do believe that. Notwithstanding, I think that not every part of the legislation I agree with.” she said. “I don’t believe with all aspects of it because I’ve lived with it and I’ve seen some aspects not work and the three that have been identified here are the three that have bothered me the most.”

Burroughs agreed, but said he would like to see the system change even more, specifically citing what he feels is a conflict of interest.

“When we talk about this being a ‘world renowned’ structure, I disagree. I think it started off wrong,” he said. “When the county executive – I don’t know how he determined to appoint his former brother-in-law as chair of the board. That is a problem. That is not democracy. That is not good for the system. That is not good for checks and balances and it makes a difference.”

Segun Eubanks, the chair of the board, rebuked those comments, noting his accomplishments more than qualify him to sit on the board.

“I have been an education professional for 35 years. I have four kids who I’ve put through public school. I’ve read more books on education than some folks around here have read any books about any subject in their entire lives. I’ve committed my life to social justice and I don’t care who I’m related to or was related or was ever related to, I’m one of the most qualified educators in this county and in this state and in this country,” Eubanks said.

Ultimately, the board voted against the amendments for a number of reasons. Curtis Valentine, the chair of the board’s policy committee, said a major factor is that the HB1107 structure is up for a full review next year (2018) and both Valentine and Eubanks feel that review will give ample ability to both highlight the merits and shortfalls of the structure and will allow for changes based on those results.

Despite board disapproval, the county delegation still moved the amendments forward, which county education advocates lauded. Theresa Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators Association, said the changes the bill proposes will empower the elected members of the board of education.

“That is empowering the voice of the people in the school system,” Dudley said. “It’s not everything we wanted, but the changes are important because it gives the elected members a larger voice on the board.”

She added that the four labor unions that support the school system – ASASP, SEIU Local 400, PGCEA and ACE-ASCME 2250 – all came together in support of the bill, which Dudley said hasn’t happened before.

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