Prince George’s Leaders Seek End to School Board Acrimony Fueled by Disputed Ethics Reports

The Prince George's County Public Schools headquarters in Upper Marlboro. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Three weeks ago, several members of the Prince George’s County Board of Education met online in an effort to resolve a stalemate over the hiring of a new attorney.

They agreed to recommend that the full board go with a temporary hire, someone who could handle some legal matters, but they couldn’t reach consensus on how to procure more permanent counsel.

The subcommittee meeting of the board was mostly cordial — in contrast to some sessions — but the bonhomie ended when board member Edward Burroughs III accused board Chair Juanita D. Miller of gaming a prior attempt to hire an attorney.

That set Miller off.

“You know what, I know I’m being rude,” Miller said, interrupting Burroughs, her longtime rival. “But I am not going to tolerate these lies.”

Miller, an appointee of County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), then went on an extended rant, ignoring more than a dozen requests from subcommittee Chair Raaheela Ahmed to wait her turn.

“For him to sit there and tell this lie before the public, I’m not going to tolerate it,” Miller bellowed. “What is being done by this board and that particular group is criminal. Clearly criminal.”

Miller didn’t explain her comment, but it was an apparent reference to conclusions the board’s citizen-led ethics panel reached in July alleging that Burroughs and several other elected board members had engaged in wrongdoing.

The members have all denied the allegations, but their ability to publicly rebut the findings is limited by confidentiality rules. Some have hired attorneys to fight the ethics committee’s findings.

Typically, allegations of “criminal” conduct, in the absence of indictments, would generate controversy. But Miller’s comment made barely a ripple. No one participating in the Aug. 30 committee meeting felt moved to even acknowledge her inflammatory charge.

One top Prince George’s official — County Council Chair Calvin S. Hawkins II (D) — later called Miller’s comments “unwarranted and unnecessary.”

“It is troubling,” he added. “We’re better than that.”

But other officials shrugged off Miller’s casual allegations of criminality as business-as-usual for a school board that has been riven by conflict for months, if not years.

Many noted that Burroughs and his allies have pilloried Miller for months in the media, accusing her of being unfit to serve. They have sought her removal by the state Board of Education.

In addition, Burroughs and his attorney, former Prince George’s State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D), were featured prominently in a video produced by More Perfect Union, a national progressive group whose mission statement declares: “The powerful spend billions selling us their side of the story. We aren’t buying it anymore.”

The video has been viewed more than 228,000 times. An accompanying tweet alleges without evidence that “lobbyists & business groups” in Prince George’s “are attempting to overturn an election in plain sight to keep control of a $2 billion school board budget.” That’s an apparent reference to the ethics complaint and the potential that it could lead to some board members’ removal.

More Perfect Union claimed that a sparsely attended Aug. 2 rally outside school board headquarters “was organized by lobbyists with deep financial ties” to Alsobrooks, though it offered no documentation. The one attendee who is featured, Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce President David Harrington, makes no mention of corruption; he does urge an end to the “dysfunction” that has gripped the panel.

“It’s critical for us to make sure we do everything we can to figure out exactly who is doing this, and make sure that they’re held accountable, because it’s way over the line,” says Ivey, who is representing three of the accused board members, in the video.

The More Perfect Union video was released on the first day of class in Prince George’s, a day that tested the system’s ability to bring students back for in-person instruction amid rising COVID-19 infection rates and a nationwide bus driver shortage.

‘Enough is enough’

Members of the General Assembly and other county leaders are fed up with the school board’s clashes and the never-ending battles between Miller and the elected members. (She once referred to her younger colleagues in an interview as “the children.”)

They say privately that they regard the board as a whole to be an embarrassment for Prince George’s and a poor example for students.

Although there is talk of yet another change to the board’s structure (currently, four members are appointed and nine are elected, along with one student member), there is no guarantee that the General Assembly will approve any proposal that is put forward. Any changes that are adopted would likely take months or years to implement.

To resolve the bad blood in the short term, several county leaders have concluded that outside help is warranted.

“Enough is enough,” one member of the legislative delegation said.

“I think that’s there’s room here for the county executive to have a mediator and intervene,” said Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel). “They’re at an impasse.”

“Without some intervention, this is not going to end well,” she added.

Harrington, a former Democratic county councilmember and state senator, said that any board member who refuses to end the bickering needs to rethink “whether or not the school board is the right place for them.”

“The dysfunction of the school board — the whole school board — must be called into question,” said Harrington. “Mediation is required.”

Alsobrooks has met with individual members multiple times. But, in an interview, she said she lacks the power to force the warring factions to settle their differences and behave professionally.

“Even though I cannot force them into mediation, I would be happy to facilitate mediation,” she said. “In fact, I think it would be a step in the right direction. I think it would be something that would be helpful, so we can return to discourse that is only focused on children.”

Deep into a five-hour meeting that was held on Sept. 2, the board was upbraided by its own parliamentarian, Bill Shelton, an attorney who has agreed to serve temporarily.

Asked if would be willing to serve permanently, Shelton said he would not, for fear of his reputation.

“I can’t afford to come on TV and look like Boo-Boo the Fool, because I have to make a living,” he told the board. “When people talk about this board, that’s what they think of you. That’s what they think of all of us.”

Shelton said he has “come close” to quitting in the middle of board meetings. He is often shown on Zoom holding his head, as if in anguish.

“Most professional people would not want to work with this board because you don’t conduct yourself in a professional manner,” he added. “You need to learn to love one another and not be at one another’s throats all the time.”

Members of the county’s General Assembly delegation are in frequent contact with one another over the school board’s dysfunction, but few are willing to speak out publicly.

Some are reluctant to offend the elected “progressives” on the board because they have proven adept at winning elections. Many want to steer clear of the ethical cloud, which hovers unresolved. Still others question Alsobrooks’ decision to hire Miller, a former state legislator and ex-commissioner of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, given her sometimes-confrontational leadership style.

There is broad concern that the turmoil could lead Dr. Monica Goldson, the highly regarded CEO of the school system, to depart.

Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s) endorsed the idea of a formal coming-together process.

“The next step is to have a come-to-Jesus meeting and everybody agree that they’re in it for the kids.”

Impasse over disputed ethics allegations

Amid the questions about the board’s poisoned relationships, its lack of an attorney, and concern about Goldson’s willingness to remain, there is also uncertainty about the ethical allegations.

When the ethics panel’s conclusions were first reported by Maryland Matters over the summer, the charges trained a harsh light on the members accused of wrongdoing — and led Alsobrooks to call on the state school board to conduct an immediate review.

But Miller has been unable to muster the votes needed for the local school board — where half of the members stand accused of some wrongdoing in at least one of the three ethics reports — to formally accept the reports. As a result, the state board has said its hands are tied.

In an interview, Miller conceded it’s unclear what will happen next.

“I’m a realist. The votes aren’t there,” she acknowledged. “So if the votes aren’t there, why keep toying with it?”

Supporters of the accused board members — and one of the members, in a Maryland Matters commentary — have dismissed the ethics committee’s reports as error-riddled and politically motivated.

Maryland Matters obtained Prince George’s County Schools documents, including emails, that contradict many of the findings of the ethics panel, which appeared drawn to fit a pre-determined narrative.

Among the contradictions are disputed details of the board’s effort to hire a lobbyist in Annapolis.

The ethics report accused Burroughs and other members of hiring “a private lobbyist” as part of a “voting block” to “promote the passage of one piece of legislation:” a bill to replace the appointed members with elected members.

The ethics panel also concluded that the board’s lobbyist, Jennifer Jenkins, failed to produce reports or attend committee meetings. But school system documents reveal that she produced at least two reports on a range of issues, including early literacy and mental health services. And a YouTube video offers proof she attended at least one meeting with Goldson, Miller, legislators and the public.

The ethics panel also stated that Jenkins didn’t work the entire 90-day General Assembly session, but failed to note that she only served 17 days because she received a stop-work order from Miller.

The ethics report claimed that the board improperly funneled work to Jenkins without issuing a Request for Proposals from other potential candidates for the lobbying job. But, according to a Nov. 15, 2020, email, Goldson told Burroughs: “You don’t need an RFP for this. It was considered a consultant.”

And the ethics committee’s conclusion that Jenkins lacked the “credentials and experience” to lobby for the board is contradicted by her resume; she worked for a government relations firm and spent six years on the staff of the Prince George’s County Council, supporting the council’s legislative efforts.

The ethics panel also suggested that Burroughs and others operated in isolation to procure a lobbyist. But emails show that Burroughs discussed the issues with others, including the board’s attorney and Miller’s predecessor as chair, Alvin Thornton. The ethics panel ignored the fact that it was Miller, after she became board chair, who signed the board’s contract with Jenkins on Jan. 20, 2021.

Then there is the ethics committee’s allegation that board members voted to expand a “$500,000 Construction Contract” with the Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA) without disclosing campaign contributions that some members received from the organization.

The agreement is cast as an attempt to steer contracts to union-approved firms.

A top school system official confirmed that LiUNA does not have a “construction contract” with the Prince George’s County schools. The union did enter a “pilot project labor agreement” for asbestos removal in 2019.

That agreement encouraged contractors to use their “best efforts” to ensure that half of the system’s asbestos work be performed by county residents, and it required companies and the union to “work cooperatively” to boost opportunities for historically disadvantaged firms, according to a review of the project conducted by PGCPS Chief Operating Officer Barry L. Stanton.

“Overall the pilot asbestos project was a success for Prince George’s County Public Schools and LiUNA,” Stanton’s report concluded. “All contracts came in on budget,” and numerous women and minority hiring and salary “goals” were “achieved.”

Three months later, Burroughs and Miller exchanged emails about a possible expansion of the agreement to include “other scopes of work.”

In a Jan. 27, 2021, email to Burroughs, Miller offered “congratulations on the success of the CWA (community workforce agreement) project” and offered to co-sponsor the expansion measure.

“Based on what I have read, I can co-sponsor and will encourage our colleagues to join in as well,” she wrote.

Although the ethics report found “it would appear” that Burroughs’ support for an expansion of the project labor agreement “was largely a quid pro quo” for campaign contributions he received from LiUNA, it offers nothing to back this charge.

The report quotes the National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation, an anti-union organization based in Virginia, as an objective source on contracting issues.

Gregory T. Morton, the ethics committee’s chair, declined to discuss the report on Tuesday.

In an interview, Miller would not disclose whether she intends to again ask the board the accept the ethics report. “I don’t think it’s going to die,” she said.

The board next meets on Thursday evening.

“It’s just unfortunate that the board’s actions are causing the system itself to have a distraction from the great things that are going on,” Miller said.

She added that her focus is on the new school year and the challenges that all school systems are facing.

“We’ll just have to see what happens with this ethics issue,” she said.

Like the colleagues with whom she has feuded, Miller appeared weary of the whole thing.

“This is not what I signed up for,” she said.

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