Ben Jealous attacks Rushern Baker over Prince George's County school system pay raises

The duel between the two front-runners in the Democratic race for Maryland governor heated up Friday as Ben Jealous criticized Rushern L. Baker III over a new audit questioning raises given to employees of the Prince George’s County school system.

Jealous pointed to a new audit of the school system that had found additional evidence of improper salary increases amounting to about $300,000. The system was already under fire for questionable raises.

Baker’s campaign responded by saying the audits are a normal function of county government that Baker oversees as county executive.

David Byrd, a Baker campaign consultant, said the county deserves credit for detecting the problems through its internal audit process. He said that in “a political season” such audits are often used inappropriately to claim malfeasance.

“Only the naive and inexperienced and the political opportunists out there are attempting to deceive the public over what amounts to government doing its job of internal oversight,” Byrd said.

Controversy over the pay raises and other issues already contributed to the early departure of county school Superintendent Kevin Maxwell, who was hired after Baker was given stronger authority over the county’s school system.

“While schools in his county were underfunded, Rushern Baker’s handpicked CEO of PGCPS was giving excessive raises and promotions to administrative staff,” Jealous, the former NAACP president, said Friday. “He needs to explain to the people of Maryland how they can trust him to fully fund our schools and be a good financial steward of taxpayer resources when in his own county he failed on both counts."

The problems in the school system have made Baker a target of Gov. Larry Hogan as well as his Democratic rivals. A political action committee that supports Jealous, Maryland Together We Rise PAC, has distributed flyers that says Baker’s oversight of county schools “hasn’t work out for our kids.”

Maxwell, a former Anne Arundel County schools chief, was recruited by Baker in 2013 to lead the system in Maryland’s second-largest county. The school system had been plagued by rapid turnover among previous superintendents.

Under Maxwell the system has decreased its dropout rate and improved by other measures, leading Baker to praise him as the best superintendent the county has had in 40 years.

But Maxwell’s tenure has been plagued by allegations of fraud in graduation rates, the loss of federal Head Start money and questions over salaries of front-office officials.

Maxwell has announced he will step down as of the end of this year, but some school board members — backed by Jealous — have called for his immediate firing.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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