One step forward in Prince George's

Oversight panel: Senate approval and the governor's signature should be next, but not the end of the line.

February 16, 2002

STATE legislators came closer to throttling the bizarre behavior of the Prince George's County school board last week when a bill that would hand much of the board's power to an oversight panel passed the House of Delegates.

But that's just the first important victory, and the legislature in particular needs to keep its eyes on the big prize here: a complete re-working of the county's school governance structure. Achieving that end is not a certainty.

Some members of Prince George's legislative delegation have vowed to fight what they see as an overreaching state effort to re-make the county's schools. Maybe there are a few loopy board members, they say, but that's no reason to curse the entire setup.

Those who would like to keep the current structure also invoke this reasoning: The board is elected now, so it's a "democratic" body that's responsible to county voters. An appointed board would, by definition, be less democratic.

But here's where that reasoning crumbles. Democracy is judged as much by the results it achieves as it is by the processes that are followed - and the results that can be claimed by the Prince George's school board are in no danger of being trumpeted as a model of majority rule at work.

Do the voters of Prince George's really want a school board that spends more time quibbling over power than setting sensible education policy? Do they really want to see money come and go without much to show for it? Are they well-served by schools that aren't giving their children the best possible education?

Certainly, Prince George's County residents ought to have a say in how their schools are run, but the current elected board hasn't given them that say. It hasn't provided much for anyone beyond grief and frustration or chronic disappointment. The county's MSPAP scores are on a four-year downward slide; the board and the superintendent can't decide who should be in charge or what course they ought to pursue; and the county's travails have become a near laughingstock statewide.

That's why a different structure must be pursued.

Once the current bill passes the Senate and earns the governor's signature, and the oversight panel is formed, the legislature must press on to come up with permanent alterations. Legislation will likely be needed to disband the elected school board and establish the criteria and appointment process for a new one. Money may be needed - as it was in Baltimore when a similar makeover was undertaken in 1997 - to enable that new board to set the district on the right course.

The only unacceptable choice, in fact, would be to continue with the status quo.

The kids of Prince George's can't afford that - and neither can those whose duty it is to provide them with the education our constitution guarantees.

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