UPPER MARLBORO — If the Prince George’s County Board of Education’s reaction to the numerous education bills the Prince George’s Delegation has submitted for this year’s session could be summarized, it would be a resounding “no, thank you.”
Education in Prince George’s County is always a hot topic, and every year nearly a dozen bills go before the Maryland General Assembly concerning Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS). During the process of creating new laws, the lawmakers in Annapolis gather input from all stakeholders, including those who the possible new laws could affect and each year, PGCPS and the board’s committees developed proposals before giving their official position.
As the first and second drafts of bills began to hit state leaders’ desk, Demetria Tobias, associate general counsel for PGCPS, brought several proposed local education bills before the board on Feb. 1 for action.
“There have been 11 local bills filed impacting the board of education. The (Prince George’s County) delegation has an education committee that was established last year that has already started the process of hearing these bills,” she said.
Tobias spoke in detail about the bills concerning the school system that are currently up for consideration during this year’s legislative session. Those new proposed laws cover everything from class sizes and uniform costs to how capital improvements money is awarded and who has oversight of investigations within the school system.
Notable bills include Del. Alonzo Washington’s (D- 22) proposal for an Office of Inspector General for the school system, which would “provide independent evaluation and recommendations to improve PGCPS on several levels; Del. Angela Angel’s (D-25) proposal to require charter school education to be affordable and upfront about its costs; and Sen. C. Anthony Muse’s (D- 26) proposal to require PGCPS to reemploy any employee that is cleared of wrongdoing by a Child Protection Services investigation.
Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-23A) proposed a bill that would require the school system conduct follow-ups after hearing and vision screenings on students. Essentially the bill wants to increase the number of students who are receiving services recommended as a result of the screenings. PGCPS screens around 23,000 students a year with just two technicians. Tobias said the committee chose to oppose the bill with “the full intent to take it to us as a policy committee and board.”
While Tobias noted that several of the bills before the General Assembly concerning the school system were written with good intent, she and the board’s policy committee recommended opposition to nearly all of the bills. The reasons for opposition on each bill varied, though in several cases Tobias said the board and PGCPS are already conducting the work the bills would necessitate and therefore laws are not needed to complete it.
Two examples of such are the proposal for the inspector general and Del. Angel’s bill requiring PGCPS to do an annual report on students with disabilities. Tobias said the opposition to the report is based on the fact that PGCPS already does a report on students with disabilities.
“We already collect this information and report it publically,” she said. “We collected, and we don’t think it’s necessary to require our staff to undergo a different process for another full annual report when we can simply respond when.”
With regards to the inspector general, Tobias said the board’s Internal Audit Office already handles several of the tasks that would be assigned to the new office, though they do not typically handle academic issues.
In addition, she noted that the General Assembly passed an act last year protecting the rights of public employee whistleblowers and the school system already has a way to receive anonymous tips through a third-party contractor.
In the case of Del. Jay Walker’s (D - 26) bill mandating reduced class sizes, Tobias said adherence to the bill would simply not be feasible. Walker’s bill would require the board have 30 or fewer students in any kindergarten through third-grade PGCPS classroom. The school system is already working on reducing class sizes, Tobias said, but has run into roadblocks due to building constraints. The bill also carries an estimated fiscal mandate of between $3 million and $5 million.
“When we looked at the data…it is about 3.8 percent of our students, but as you know there are a lot of reasons why you may have ‘overcrowded’ classes, and a big issue for us particularly is facilities and space,” she said.
The one bill Tobias recommended approval of was the School Overcrowding Reduction Act of 2018, introduced by Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-21) and Del. Valentino-Smith. Even then, the recommendation was supported by amendments that would ensure the school system would not lose its local powers.
While the board agreed with Tobias and opposed the majority of the bills, the vote on the matter was not unanimous and in fact, would not have passed if Board member Lupi Quinteros-Grady had not changed her abstention to a yes. Two others voted to abstain, including Board member Raaheela Ahmed, and Board member Edward Burroughs opposed.
Ahmed said she could not agree to oppose bills that fundamentally coincided with the goals of the board while Burroughs said he wanted the board to back the bill establishing an Inspector General, mainly because the Internal Audit office reports board and is therefore put in difficult situations if the board needs to be audited.
“It’s an unhealthy balance, and so I support an external inspector general,” he said. “I would seriously hope that we could reconsider and we should support that bill.”
The board also voted to take no stance on several bills aimed at changing the structure of the board of education. Policy committee Chair Curtis Valentine said his committee chose to do so for the time being but repeated noted that they would take a stance once the bills have evolved.
Several of the local education bills already went before the House Delegation Education Committee on Jan. 26 and will continue to be discussed throughout the session. Tobias said if the bills evolve, change significantly, or take on amendments, she would bring them back before the board for consideration.