Guest Commentary: Prince George’s Needs a Fully Elected School Board
By Theresa Mitchell Dudley and Alyson Harkins
Educators in Prince George’s County Public Schools just learned – along with the rest of you – that employees in our central office got big raises authorized by the system’s CEO and no one else.
Members of the school board brought the CEO’s secret actions to light, but the CEO does not report to the board. This is just the latest and most egregious example that highlights why the PGCPS governance structure, established by the Maryland General Assembly in 2013, is broken and failing our students, families and educators.
It’s been five years since County Executive Rushern L. Baker III convinced the legislature to give him control of the school system. Baker promised accountability and improvements but this structure has not delivered on those promises.
The only answer is a fully elected school board. And here’s why:
Our school governance system is a politically inspired creation that gives power to one person, the county executive. Through political appointments, the county executive controls the Board of Education’s (BOE) leadership. He appoints most of the board and the system’s chief executive officer. The school system’s chief executive does not even report to the Board of Education, making it impossible for the board to supervise or hold him accountable. Only nine of the 13 board members and one student board member are elected.
This setup has nullified any checks and balances, leading to harmful consequences. Stakeholders have no ability to influence the operation of our schools or to hold system leaders accountable.
Last year, for example, more than 600 educators were placed on administrative leave, many without due process, leaving students to be taught by substitutes and staff members both struggling to cover classes and fearful of the slightest accusation. Excessive workload and poor morale led to a staff turnover of more than 15 percent this school year alone.
Schools are physically deteriorating and there are health, safety and security concerns. Our students must take too many standardized exams and make do without adequate materials, resources, and much-needed mental health support.
Under Baker’s leadership, educators have been forced to work under administrators who don’t honor contractually mandated teacher planning time, and who enforce other policies selectively. A cumbersome evaluation process penalizes educators working in schools with the most challenging issues.
This power is not just unfair, leading to secret pay raises, for instance; it has also been abusive to our members. Most recently, three days after the system’s CEO, board chair and Baker presented a poorly received report to the Prince George’s House Delegation on Jan. 16 – in response to a systemwide grading audit – central office leaders placed three DuVal High School counselors on administrative leave. These dedicated educators are scapegoats for doing what they were told to do by central office leadership. These counselors should be returned to their positions immediately.
Meanwhile, while he controls the system, Baker has let our educational problems grow worse while he crisscrosses the state in a run for governor.
At the same Jan. 16 meeting, Baker said publicly, “Student achievement is not the reason we took over the school board.” It is, however, the reason we teach. Our members are proud of the work they do and we are devoted to serving our students.
That’s why the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, representing more than 10,500 educators, recently voted “no confidence” in our school board structure – a rare and major step for our members.
We did not take this vote lightly – and now that these pay raises have come to light, we are doubling down on our stance.
We, along with our students and their families, are witnessing the system’s problems firsthand and we’re sick and tired of not having a say in addressing them.
Enough is enough.
It’s time for a responsive school board, one that is democratically elected and answers to the needs of our students, educators, parents, and public, not an appointed CEO. The public’s voice must be heard. Our unworkable school governance structure must be fixed.
Only with a democratically elected school board can Prince George’s County hope to foster the highest levels of student achievement and the best possible environments for teaching and learning.
We call on the Prince George’s County House and Senate delegations in the General Assembly to make this a priority and pass legislation during the current General Assembly session. Give the county an elected school board, and our students the schools they deserve.
Theresa Mitchell Dudley is president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association. Alyson Harkins is a special educator at High Point High School.