Opinion: Prince George’s Needs an All-Elected School Board

School Board

In light of an Oct. 21 news report that certain candidates for appointment to the Prince George’s County Board of Education believed they were required to vote as directed by the county executive, it is time once again for our legislative delegation to return control of the school board to the voters.

Fox5 DC reporter Lindsay Watts reported that she heard a recording of an adviser to County Executive Angela Alsobrooks telling a potential school board appointee that either Alsobrooks or the adviser would call from time to time to instruct the appointee how to vote. The county executive selects the school board chair and three other members, as well as the school system’s chief executive officer.

But it really doesn’t matter whether any of the appointees on the board were instructed how to vote on the unwise public-private partnership alternative financing scheme that the county and school board adopted Oct. 21. The important thing is that the board structure made that possible.

It is hardly surprising that appointees would comply with the wishes of the official who appointed them, regardless of their own opinion on an issue. We need board members to be free to vote their conscience in the best interests of our students and taxpayers. The only way to do that is a return to an all-elected board.

We had a nonpartisan all-elected school board until 2002, when Rushern Baker, then chair of the county’s House delegation in Annapolis, pushed through legislation to hand over our schools to a board consisting of political appointees of the county executive and governor.

It is outrageous that the only Maryland jurisdiction to have had voting rights taken away from its people just happened one with a majority-minority population. Do you think this could have happened in a majority-white jurisdiction?

The idea that county residents were smart enough (or gullible enough) to vote for the politicians, but not smart enough to vote for people to run their schools was more than patronizing; it was racist. The fact that many of the politicians who showed such disdain and disrespect for the people were themselves persons of color, does not diminish the inherent racism of their actions and attitude, and that attitude continues to this day.

In 2006, the board became elected once again, but with giant districts and with at-large seats that were too expensive to campaign for without partisan support. We finally got back our nine-district elected board in 2008. Vacancies would be filled by district voters in special elections.

When Baker campaigned for county executive, he promised to keep his hands off the school board. Instead, he got his friends in the delegation to sneak through a bill in the closing days of the 2013 legislative session to give himself the power to appoint three members to the board, appoint the board chair and vice chair, and fill vacancies by appointment. He gave the county council one appointed seat to get them on board. Under the new law, he also got the power to select the CEO, who could take action largely independent of the school board.

Whether good or bad, qualified or not, these are all partisan political patronage appointments to what is supposed to be a nonpartisan board. This is where we find ourselves today.

Today’s hybrid board is not much better than an all-appointed board. It provides a false sense of democracy while still demeaning the citizens of Prince George’s County. Before, we had 100% control of the school board which, in turn, controlled the superintendent.

Under the current system, it takes a two-thirds vote — nine members — to override an action of the politically appointed CEO. Today, with one vacancy filled by appointment, even a unanimous vote by the eight elected members is not enough to win out over the political appointees.

And the racist legacy continues.

The only way to show respect to the people of Prince George’s County is to give them back the vote — all of it, not some fraction.

When Alsobrooks campaigned for county executive, she said she would support a return to an all-elected school board. Now is the time for her to tell the delegation that move has her blessing. She still would be heavily involved in education, not the least because she can change the school system’s budget before it goes to the county council for enactment.

Whether or not Alsobrooks fulfills her campaign promise, the delegation must step up and return the all-elected school board to what it was before the Baker takeover.

It was just plain wrong to deny the voters — especially the voters of this majority-minority county — the right to run their own schools. It was wrong then. It is wrong now. And now is the time to trust the people and restore democracy to the governance of our school system.

— JOE BRICE AND DAVID L. CAHN

The writers are, respectively, president and vice president of the Prince George’s County Civic Federation. Cahn is also co-chair of Citizens for an Elected Board.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the same Fox5 news report that the authors cite, Prince George’s officials deny putting pressure on school board members to vote a certain way — Alsobrooks called the allegation “an L-I-E.” A spokesperson told the TV station that the staffer in question was being overzealous.