ANNAPOLIS – A plan to remove the elected Prince George’s County school board cleared a formidable hurdle Thursday when the county’s House delegation agreed with a Senate plan to replace all nine elected board members with appointees.
“We have just taken a major step,” said Delegate Rushern L. Baker III, chairman of the county’s delegation who has pushed for four years to restructure the board.
The House delegation had backed a proposal for a board of five elected and four appointed members, which they said helped preserve the voting power of county residents. With the end of the legislative session approaching, however, the delegation agreed Thursday, on an 11-8 vote, to accept the more drastic Senate plan.
Eleven was the minimum number of votes needed to pass the delegation . Delegate Carolyn J.B. Howard, D-Prince George’s, abstained.
Baker said the remaining differences between the House and Senate are minor and will be worked out before the session ends Monday.
“We’ll have a new school board June 1st,” he said.
The restructuring plan calls for the new board members to be appointed by the governor and county executive. It would end the terms of the nine members as well as Superintendent Iris T. Metts on June 1, preventing the current group from making binding decisions in the county budget that is up for approval that month.
The plan is tied to a minimum of $43 million in new money for the county schools next year. About $23 million would come from a state cigarette tax pending in separate legislation, and $20 to $33 million would come from a phone tax of at least 5 percent that the county council would be required to impose on long-distance calls, including cell phone calls.
The county could receive substantially more state money in future years if the legislature passes a more comprehensive educational funding reform package still under negotiation.
If the county does not restructure the board, it could lose $10 million of the $23 million increase in that funding package, as well as $5 million already included in the state budget.
Critics in the legislature have said they are reluctant to send the county additional funding until a board is in place that they can trust to spend it wisely. But opponents said linking the restructuring plan to money puts a price on the right to vote.
“We traded votes for funding,” said Delegate David M. Valderrama, D-Prince George’s. “Except for the funding, this thing stinks.”
The appointed board would be replaced by an elected board after four years. Appointed board members would be prohibited from running for public office while serving, and some of them would have to have expertise in business, education or special education.
The plan creates a chief executive officer in place of the superintendent whose contract would be tied to improving the system. Metts could apply for that job. It also creates a chief financial officer, chief accountability officer and chief academic officer.
All nine members of the next elected board will chosen at-large, but five of them would have to reside in designated districts. Elected members would not be term-limited, and their terms would not be staggered.
When House and Senate negotiators meet to iron out the details, House representatives will push for changes to ensure a smooth transition, Baker said. He wants Metts to remain in place at least through the end of the school year. A provision requiring the board to buy out her contract could also be proposed.
When she leaves, key staffers will likely follow, and without some continuity ongoing projects would be thrown into uncertainty, several delegates said.
“As a parent, the idea of Dr. Metts leaving June 1st frightens me,” Baker said.
While some members of the delegation wanted to meet again to discuss the numerous provisions in the bill, Baker said its next stop is the House Ways and Means Committee, where negotiators will be appointed to work with the Senate.
“The biggest hurdle is over,” said Delegate James Hubbard, D-Prince George’s. “The rest is just nit-picky little pieces.”