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Education Justice

Miller says she sought camaraderie when joining Prince George’s school board, but encountered ‘discourse’

Prince George’s County Board of Education Chair Juanita Miller at a meeting Dec. 8. Screenshot.

On the final day of testimony in her eight-day disciplinary hearing, Prince George’s County Board of Education Chair Juanita Miller spoke for herself Wednesday.

A state administrative judge will determine whether Miller should be removed from serving on the school board — but a decision isn’t expected for at least a few months.

Since Miller’s appointment as chair in January 2021, the board has experienced frequent disagreements, many of which surfaced publicly. The current board leader said she wanted to establish a team effort but recognized there was already some “discourse” that imperiled efforts to unify the board members.

“It was made very clear to me by certain board members that there was a majority vote, or bloc of votes, that they would expect me to adhere to whatever the majority vote entailed,” she said. “I didn’t agree with that statement. I felt it wasn’t very collegial. I’m trying to establish a team effort here and I’m being told you can’t do this, and this is what you can do…”

The virtual hearing, which began the week of Nov. 28 and continued Monday, is taking place in the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings before Judge Richard O’Connor. He will have up to 90 days to determine whether Miller should be removed from her position on the board.

Miller faces allegations of misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty and incompetence. The allegations have been made by six current and former board members — Raaheela Ahmed, Edward Burroughs III, Kenneth Harris, David Murray, Shayla Adams-Stafford and Joshua Thomas — who are represented by attorney Brandon Cooper. Ahmed, Burroughs and Thomas are no longer on the school board.

Miller’s attorney, Sydney Patterson with the firm MarcusBonsib of Greenbelt, asked Miller about her educational and professional background, which includes working as a special education teacher and administrator in the District of Columbia public schools and another 12 years in Prince George’s. She also served as a state delegate between 1987 and 1991.

Patterson asked Miller if she’s ever been threatened with an ethics violation within days of starting a position.

“No. Never,” Miller said.

But Cooper asked Miller if she was the subject of an ethics investigation when she served as an appointee on the board of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. According to news reports, in the late 1990s, Miller voted to support a contract for a minority-run firm that was not the lowest bidder but had contributed to one of her campaigns. However, she wasn’t charged with any crime or ethics violations.

Cooper asked if it was true that former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson (D) asked the County Council not to reappoint Miller to the WSSC board.

Patterson quickly objected to both questions and O’Connor sustained the objections.

“I don’t care about the WSSC board,” the judge said.

Legal services dispute

One portion of the eight-day hearing focused on interim legal services and how contracts are awarded.

After public schools CEO Monica Goldson responded “yes” to a question from O’Connor Tuesday on whether the board chair has the authority to sign a contract under $25,000 for interim legal service, Cooper had a follow-up question.

He asked Goldson if board policy existed that prohibited individual board members from taking action on behalf of the board, and whether that would forbid the board chair’s action to conduct business without board approval.

“If the board had a policy that stated that could not happen, that is correct. The chair could not do that,” Goldson said.

A copy of the board policy “Bylaws of the board” notes that “Board members shall have no authority to compel action in the name of the Board of Education unless the action has been previously approved by formal Board Resolution.”

Former board vice chair Sonya Williams, a Miller ally, also testified Wednesday that board approval isn’t necessary when a contract is less than $25,000.

But Cooper presented a Jan. 27 email from former interim board counsel Andrew Nussbaum, who informed the board that the $25,000 threshold “is a misreading of the policy.” That amount, he wrote, provides for specific equipment and materials other than those used for instructional purposes.

Nussbaum wrote that legal services for the board of education would be included in a section titled “non-instructional and non-staff development contracted services.” The cap amount would be less than or equal to $250,000 and any proposed work would be handled by “the superintendent or superintendent’s designee who shall contract for its purchase at a price consistent with good quality without the need for formal bid.”

Some allowed, some not

Cooper displayed an audit released in June on the county school system prepared by Premier Group Services for the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). Part of the document states: “When leadership does not follow the established policies and procedures it may negatively affect the tone at the top and it opens the door for other instances of noncompliance.”

The audit recommended that the board follow all PGCPS policies and procedures for procurement.

Two months later in August, the Maryland Office of the Inspector General for Education released a document that concluded the Prince George’s school board ethics advisory panel “did not provide a complete and fact-based report.”

The 17-page report from the inspector general found the panel’s report “was improperly referenced or factually inaccurate” on allegations that seven board members operated unethically. Six of the board members are part of this administrative hearing case and the other mentioned in the ethics report is former board member, Belinda Queen.

O’Connor said it’s his job to determine if any violations occurred in this case and wouldn’t allow Cooper to ask any more questions about the MSDE document or conclusions from the inspector general.

“I am not interested in what the MSDE might have concluded about this situation, nor about what the office of inspector general might have conclude[d] about the ethics situations,” said O’Connor, who added MSDE is not a part of the case. “It’s my job to decide and I’m going to decide on the evidence.”

Some of the evidence presented came from Miller’s other attorney, Bruce Marcus, during some questions Wednesday to Williams, the former board vice chair, who testified Tuesday for nearly 2½ hours.

Marcus displayed an email from Miller on May 21, 2021, on school board operations after the resignation of former board chief of staff Devan Martin. Martin worked as former police chief in the City of Seat Pleasant in Prince George’s.

Williams said she and Miller volunteered to help with some of the work in the school board office due to the limited number of staff, which included two assistants.

Marcus asked how many people, including board members, volunteered to help out.

“Zero,” Williams said. “Dr. Miller and I had to step in to ensure that [with] our minimum staff…we wanted to make sure that the work was being planned and implemented so that we can meet our goals as board leaders because our job is to facilitate the work of the board.”

With testimony ending around 5 p.m., the judge decided the attorneys can present closing arguments on Jan. 18.

Nearly a week earlier, on Jan. 12, the Prince George’s school board is scheduled to meet and select a new chair. Miller will remain on the board but is relinquishing the gavel.