State delegate calls for task force reviewing Prince George's school board

A state lawmaker from Prince George's County has introduced a bill to create a task force charged with reviewing current and best practices of the Board of Education.

Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, a Bowie Democrat who represents District 23A, which includes South Laurel, is asking the county delegation to approve her bill for a 12-member task force that would look at the composition, qualifications and compensation of board members; and criteria to improve board results, accountability, transparency and oversight, among other directives.

"The bill is intended to put together a think tank and to engage key stakeholders," Valentino-Smith said. "It's a common effort to develop a common understanding of our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. ... It's a place where the public can see a formal framework for a think tank where all the stakeholders have a person in the room."

After being amended, the bill stipulates the task force would be made up of the chair of the county's House delegation, the chair of the Senate delegation, a state senator, a delegate, the board chair, the superintendent, the county executive, the County Council chair, a council member, a teacher appointed by the Prince George's Teachers Association, a principal appointed by the county's Association of Supervisory and Administrative Personnel and a parent appointed by the county's PTA Council

The school board voted Jan. 10 not to support Valentino-Smith's bill, and several board members spoke out against the bill, after the board lobbyist, Leonard Lucchi, said the changes to board elections over the past years (including having the board removed and replaced with appointed members in 2002) is "a diversion from job 1 which is student achievement."

The bill initially asked the task force to review methods for selecting board members and creating a board composition that reflects the gender and racial diversity of the county; but has since been amended and those passages deleted.

Valentino-Smith said she was disappointed in the vote, and would speak on the matter before the board at the executive session scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 24.

"I was concerned and disappointed that they didn't want to engage in more dialogue, but I remain optimistic that we can work with them on this."

Valentino-Smith said the intent of the bill is not to eliminate the current board or change the election process, but with the changes to the election process over the last 12 years, "we should explore more opportunities to learn and gather information about how to achieve the best operation from the school board we can.

"It should not be clouded by a fear that recommendation could result in real change," she said.

Other tasks forces, other counties

County Executive Rushern Baker III established a 12-person task force in June to look at ways to improve the perception of Prince George's schools, increase innovative programs and practices and continue establishing partnerships with institutions of higher education.

That task force, called the Commission for Education Excellence — made up of parents, teachers, people from the business community and representatives from higher education — is set to meet for two years.

The existence of that task force gave at least one board member pause when it came to supporting Valentino-Smith's bill.

"This legislation would call for another task force on top of (Baker's)," said student member Shabnam Ahmed at the Jan. 10 meeting. "I don't understand the purpose of it or the motivation behind it."

In 2011, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman called for the creation of a task force, chaired by former State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, charged at looking at the make-up of the Howard board, and ways to foster geographic and racial diversity through the election process.

Ultimately, that task force recommended the Howard board become a "hybrid" board — five members elected by district and two members appointed by Ulman. Del. Frank Turner, a Columbia Democrat, introduced legislation that would make the recommendation law, but withdrew the bill after public outcry.

Howard's board is made up of seven members elected at-large.

"Other counties have undertaken a review, and sometimes these efforts are highly successful, and the commissions and task forces function well, and sometimes they don't," Valentino-Smith said. "If we don't take that risk, and remain at least enthusiastic about the opportunity to develop a common understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, I think it might be fair to say at that point we are not doing the best job possible in the management of this huge part of our government."

Valentino-Smith's bill still has to go through the Public Affairs Subcommittee before it's presented to, and voted on by, the county delegation.

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