Maryland will open a rare independent investigation into allegations of fraud and corruption in Prince George's County schools, a probe requested by the governor and seconded by the superintendent accused of wrongdoing.
The state Board of Education unanimously decided Tuesday to hire an outside investigator to look into whether the state's second-largest school district systematically inflated credits and grades in an effort to boost graduation rates.
The decision followed a letter from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan questioning the graduation rates and another one from Prince George's County Schools CEO Kevin Maxwell categorically denying the allegations and requesting a transparent investigation to prove them false.
"Our community does not deserve unfair scrutiny or mischaracterization," Maxwell wrote in a letter signed by nine of the district's 13 school board members.
Four-year graduation rates in Prince George's have risen 7.3 percentage points since Maxwell was appointed in 2013 — the largest increase in the state during that time, state data show. Still, the district's 81.4 percent graduation rate lags more than 5 percentage points behind the state average. Some of Maxwell's critics on the school board allege those gains were aided by tampering with some students' records.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Hogan and shared with The Baltimore Sun, state Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon and state Board of Education President Andrew R. Smarick said the education department will hire a neutral third party to audit grades and graduation rates in Prince George's County. A spokesman for Maryland State Department of Education said independent inquiries are unusual; he had not seen another one during his 15 years in the department.
The controversy over graduation rates spilled into the public eye this month when four members of the Prince George's County school board released a letter to the governor alleging "widespread systemic corruption" that involved changing grades and awarding credit for courses that were not taken.
The county's representatives in the House of Delegates, all Democrats, asked the state school board to investigate last week. On Sunday, Hogan made a similar request and publicly assured protections for whistleblowers.
"Any instances of fraud and corruption in the Maryland public school system certainly presents a state interest," Hogan wrote to the state board.
In January, state officials investigated reports of grade-changing in Prince George's schools and concluded that there was no evidence to support the claims. Prince George's state lawmakers questioned this month whether that inquiry was impartial because they said the school system employees interviewed by officials were selected by Maxwell.
The new allegations are more far-reaching and have taken on a political dimension.
Rising graduation rates are a key pillar in the record Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, a Democrat, is promoting in his bid for governor in 2018. A candidate hoping to succeed him, Democratic state Sen. Anthony Muse, referenced the controversy as he launched his county executive campaign on Monday.
Maxwell, who was appointed by Baker, has repeatedly denied the allegations and branded them as politically motivated.
"From the beginning, I have maintained that politics lie at the root of these accusations," Maxwell said in a statement. "There has been no systemic effort to promote students in Prince George's County Public Schools who did not meet state graduation requirements in order to inflate our graduation rates."
State officials said the independent auditor will be accountable to the Maryland State Department of Education, and its findings will be made public.