A bill authorizing a partial takeover of the troubled Prince George's County school system by the county's top elected official won critical support in Annapolis Wednesday.
Members of the county's state Senate delegation voted overwhelmingly to support emergency legislation that would let County Executive Rushern L. Baker III choose the school system's next chief executive officer, as the superintendent's position is known there.
If the bill passes, Baker also would choose the chair and vice chair of an expanded school board, with four appointed members in addition to the existing nine elected members and one student with limited voting rights. Three of the new appointed members would be chosen by the county executive and one by the County Council.
The county's board currently hires the CEO, approves the budget and sets salaries. But tension has been building between the board and Baker, who since his election in 2010 has sought a greater role in the school system. It has been plagued by low test scores, high turnover and rundown facilities.
Controversy over the board's search for a new schools administrator led Baker two weeks ago to seek legislation giving him the power to overhaul the 125,000-student system. The CEO position has been vacant since last September, and has turned over five times in the past decade.
The school board has narrowed its search for a replacement to three candidates, but friction arose in the last few weeks with Baker over how much say he or his representatives could have in screening the applicants.
The bill approved by county senators differs a bit from the legislation Baker had originally sought, but the county executive, who attended the delegation meeting, expressed satisfaction afterward. The board could still override the CEO's management decisions, for instance, but only with a two-thirds majority.
"It moves us closer to where we want to be in the county," Baker said, adding that "it holds the county executive responsible for education."
Assuming the bill passes before the 90-day session ends Monday night, Baker said he would move "as quickly as possible" to secure a new CEO for the system.
Sen. Anthony C. Muse was the lone member of the all-Democratic delegation to oppose the bill, arguing that such a major shake-up in school system governance shouldn't be rushed through the legislature in its final two weeks.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky said he and his colleagues had "split the difference" between the status quo and giving the county executive complete control. "Clearly there's been a lack of confidence and a drop in confidence in the board of education," Pinsky said.
The takeover move has created ripples across the state. The Maryland Association of Boards of Education and Maryland State Education Association, representing unionized teachers, both oppose the bill, which they contend would undermine traditional checks and balances between the county government and the school system.
Verjeana M. Jacobs, chair of the Prince George's County Board of Education, said the legislation would result in bureaucratic "musical chairs" without dealing directly with the challenges the system faces.
"We're doing a lot of talking about where the adults are sitting," she said, "but I haven't heard any talk about … the kids."
The bill still must pass the full Senate and win House approval, but lawmakers generally honor the wishes of home-county legislators on measures affecting their county alone.
Del. Jolene Ivey, head of the county's House delegation, said she's comfortable with the bill's main elements as she's heard about them, but wanted to read the details of the Senate legislation before reaching a firm decision on whether she'd support it.