A mess in Prince George's

June 02, 2005

THE PRINCE George's County schools - one of the nation's largest systems and long considered among Maryland's most dysfunctional - needs a new school superintendent. But first it needs to form a school board capable of leading the system out of the long-running political and legal turmoil at its very top, a saga of trouble that has to have been distracting, if not damaging, to badly needed efforts to raise the achievement of 136,000 students.

Prince George's schools CEO Andre J. Hornsby - under FBI investigation for his role in a $1 million county contract with an educational technology vendor - resigned Friday, walking off with a half-year's salary of $125,000 and other considerations. An auditor is due soon to report to the school board on this deal; criminal charges remain possible. At the very least, Prince George's students appear shortchanged by teaching tools that - according to system e-mails obtained by Sun reporter Alec MacGillis - have often not worked. (A million dollars pays about 20 more teachers for a year.)

But forget about Mr. Hornsby. Let's focus on the political football that is the Prince George's school board. It's an appointed school board for the moment, with the county's elected board having been dissolved in 2002 by Gov. Parris N. Glendening after that board engaged in prolonged public squabbling with Mr. Hornsby's predecessor. Next year, it again will become an elected board. In between, the appointed board managed to jump from the frying pan into the fire - by hiring Mr. Hornsby in 2003 despite a very mixed record and, even more curiously, by relentlessly sticking with him long after Mr. MacGillis' initial reports last October about the questionable technology contract.

If following a debilitating war with one superintendent by hiring another with a well-known history of ruffling feathers was a bold gamble that quickly backfired for the Prince George's board, doubling-down that bet by backing Mr. Hornsby throughout this past school year displayed even greater misjudgment.

What a mess. Prince George's schools now are led by an interim superintendent who intends to retire soon. The appointed school board that may select a permanent successor will itself likely change composition when it reverts to an elected board next year. Prince George's needs not one but two firm hands at its helm: a competent school board and a superintendent up to its many challenges. The tragedy here is that there have been some signs in the county of an upswing in student achievement. Just think what Prince George's students and teachers might be able to accomplish if they didn't have such instability from above.

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