Embattled Prince George's County schools chief Kevin Maxwell will leave his job some time after the end of the school year, relinquishing the helm of Maryland's second-largest district in the wake of scandals that left critics questioning his judgment and leadership.
His decision to step down follows the resignation earlier this year of D.C. schools chancellor Antwan Wilson and launches a period of transition for a struggling system that improved during Maxwell's five-year tenure but remains one of the lowest-performing in the state.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III hired Maxwell in 2013 after the state legislature gave him expanded powers to try to turn around the public school system. Under Maxwell, academic offerings and enrollment increased, and test scores rose slightly.
But critics increasingly called for his ouster in recent months amid inquiries into unauthorized pay increases among central-office staff and fraud in graduation rates. Those scandals followed earlier turmoil over a sexual abuse case involving a school volunteer, which raised questions about staff oversight, and the loss of a multimillion-dollar Head Start grant.
"The numerous distractions that have occurred over the course of this school year are unlike anything I've experienced in four decades of working in public education," Maxwell, 66, said in a message to Prince George's educators, parents and community members. "Without question, they have taken a toll on students, families and staff."
NBC4 first reported Maxwell's departure.
Baker, who is running for governor, expended considerable political capital on his quest to improve the school system, which enrolls more than 132,000 students. He faced growing political pressure to fire Maxwell but had resisted calls to dismiss him from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous and the three major candidates to succeed him as county executive.
In an interview Tuesday, Baker said he did not pressure or encourage Maxwell to step down but had spoken to him recently about his likely departure after the November election.
"He saw the political writing on the wall," Baker said. "I'm proud of the work he's done for the school system. I think he's the best superintendent we've had in 40 years. And yes, we made progress."
Segun Eubanks, chairman of the Prince George's County Board of Education and part of the panel's pro-Maxwell majority, said the panel will figure out the timing of the schools chief's departure — and how to search for a successor — as the academic year draws to a close.
"I retain an incredible amount of respect for Dr. Maxwell and the accomplishments he's made, but I think the decision to move into a transition is in the best long-term interests of everyone concerned," Eubanks said.
The financial terms of Maxwell's exit were not clear on Tuesday. He has more than three years left on his four-year contract as chief executive and makes a base salary of $299,937, a school system spokesman said.
School board member Edward Burroughs III, a frequent critic of Maxwell's, said recent questions over pay increases for some school employees appeared to be the last straw in forcing Maxwell's departure.
Other controversies included an investigation into a hidden camera discovered in a school office. Last year's probe into whether students were improperly awarded high school diplomas has led to state plans to monitor school-system efforts to tighten controls on grading and graduation certification.
"This is long overdue," Burroughs said. "The school system has been embroiled in scandal after scandal under his leadership, and I hope his resignation will allow the school district to move in a more honest and ethical direction."
Maxwell came to Prince George's from Anne Arundel County, where he served as schools superintendent for seven years. He started his career as an educator in Prince George's County and worked for a time in Montgomery County, but always prided himself on his deep ties to Prince George's, where he grew up.
When he was hired as CEO, he was the county's eighth schools chief in 14 years.
June Evans, a parent from Bowie with two daughters in the school system, lashed out at Baker for setting up a school governance structure that she believes led to Maxwell's departure. She said by allowing the county executive to appoint the schools chief, the district is guaranteed to have turnover every four or eight years.
"I really liked Maxwell," Evans said, adding that he offered bold, innovative ideas. "Of course he had some controversy, but who doesn't? He wasn't Superman. The law put in place would not even let Superman continue the work that they set out to do."
The county teachers union took a vote of "no confidence" in the school system's leadership in February, but president Theresa Mitchell Dudley said that vote, too, was intended as an indictment of the 2013 school governance legislation.
"When you have absolute power, without checks and balances, people do things that are questionable," Dudley said. "Some of the stuff that he did was really good, but the stuff that was really bad was really bad. ... How come the county executive didn't say, 'Hey, what are you doing?' He's supposed to be his boss."
The state teachers union has endorsed Jealous in the governor's race.
Jealous said Maxwell's departure "should've happened sooner, if only Rushern Baker had had the courage to fire him."Hogan, who would face Baker in November's general election if Baker wins the June 26 Democratic primary, said through a spokeswoman that new direction for the school district was needed.
"It's time for the county to put a leader in place who will restore citizens' broken trust in the administration of the school system," Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said.
The major candidates vying to replace Baker this year all applauded Maxwell's decision to leave.
"Today we've turned a page," Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George's), who has pushed for Maxwell's resignation for two years, said in a statement. "Students, parents and educators deserve a school CEO they can trust. Maxwell failed in that regard and many others."
Former congresswoman Donna F. Edwards called the resignation a "welcome relief." She said Baker should appoint a "placeholder CEO," and allow the next county executive to hire a permanent replacement.
Prince George's County state's attorney Angela Alsobrooks said Maxwell made "absolutely the right decision for the county's children and families" and said she would ask his top deputies and executive staff to step down as well if she becomes county executive.
"This change was necessary," Alsobrooks said, describing recent conversations with teachers and principals who she said feel "beaten down" by recent school controversies. "We needed a fresh start."