What We Know About the Prior Investigation into Alleged Fraudulent Graduation Rates

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

Earlier this month, four Prince George’s County board of education members raised hackles when they alleged that graduation rates in the county schools had been inflated through grade fixing and other tactics. The board members — Edward Burroughs, David Murray, Raaheela Ahmed, and Juwan Blocker — asked Governor Larry Hogan to order an investigation into the claims of fraud. Schools CEO Kevin Maxwell and other school officials have denied the allegations, citing an investigation by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) conducted earlier this year that cleared the schools of any wrongdoing.

But State Delegate Jay Walker has publicly questioned whether the MSDE investigation was sufficiently thorough, and on June 25 Governor Larry Hogan sent a letter requesting that the MSDE conduct a “complete, thorough, and exhaustive” investigation into the allegations.

So, why order a second investigation? How thorough was the investigation that was completed earlier this year? A letter sent to the U.S. Department of Education describes the previous MSDE investigation in detail. (Scroll to the end of the post to find the letter in full.) Here is what we know about the investigation:

  1. When did the investigation occur? The investigation was conducted in January 2017, but it was a follow-up on an informal inquiry that had occurred the previous year. In July 2016, Patrick Rooney, deputy director of the United States Department of Education’s (USDE) Office of State Support had sent a letter to Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon informing her of an anonymous tip made to his office, alleging that Schools CEO Maxwell was forcing grade changes in order to boost graduation rates. The letter included mention of two high schools in particular. After receiving the letter, Salmon contacted Maxwell about the allegations, and he denied them. Nothing further was done until the MSDE received a phone call in December 2016 from the USDE asking for an update on the investigation.
  2. Who conducted the investigation? The January investigation seems to have been conducted by a single person, Carol Williamson, chief academic officer of the Office of the Deputy for Teaching and Learning, and a former superintendent of Queen Anne’s County Public Schools. The investigation was preceded by a meeting between Williamson and Maxwell on December 12, 2016.
  3. What was the scope of the investigation? The investigation consisted of 1) looking at graduation rate data, 2) meeting with Kevin Maxwell, and 3) interviewing Maxwell and four others. Carol Williamson looked at the graduation data for the county for the past five years and for the two high schools mentioned in the complaint. She discussed the graduation data with Maxwell at the December meeting, and in January she interviewed Maxwell and four other PGCPS employees: an instructional director, a data management and strategy analyst, a special project officer*, and a deputy superintendent.
  4. How were the interviewees selected? How long was each interview? The employees interviewed were referred by Maxwell. It appears that none of the employees interviewed is in a school-based position. Williamson writes, “At the conclusion of our [December] meeting I asked him to identify others with whom I could talk. I asked to talk with the principals’ supervisors for the two high schools, with someone involved in grade collection on transcripts, with someone responsible for school counselors, etc.” Each interview was between 30 and 45 minutes long. According to Williamson, the discussions were thorough, and each person interviewed was “very proud of the work being done in the school system.” (See the letter below for a list of questions asked.)
  5. Who knew — or didn’t know — about the investigation? In a statement issued on June 20, Board Members Burroughs, Ahmed, Murray, and Blocker claimed that they were not informed of the MSDE investigation. They write, “We were absolutely unaware that MSDE had done an investigation on the matter earlier this year. Neither the CEO nor Board leadership informed us of it previous to yesterday evening, when it went out as a blast to school system stakeholders and the media.”

One Parent’s Budget Priorities: Happy Teachers and Engaged Students

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A poster that the author created for Teacher Appreciation Week.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

by Lori Morrow

I originally planned to speak during the public comment portion of the Prince George’s County board of education meeting on June 22. However, I was informed on June 20 that the BOE had reached its limit* of 15 speakers.

The text below is from an email I sent to the CEO and board of education members, with the subject line “PGCPS Budget Priorities: Happy Teachers and Engaged Students”:

I’ve been encouraging people to send inputs in advance of the Thursday meeting, so here is my short list…

Things I want:

1. Whatever the teachers want, including the freedom and resources to be innovative and keep students engaged with hands-on activities

2. Resources to meet the needs of students at all levels of the academic spectrum, including math & literacy support and TAG training for teachers

3. Language exposure at neighborhood elementary schools through programs like ICAL [International Culture and Language, used at Talented and Gifted centers] or sharing language teachers like we do for art and music

4. Maintenance funding to ensure safe, functional buildings for our students and staff

5. Focused interventions and support for students impacted by lack of core teachers due to administrative leave issues this year (Get creative…use executives & central office staff as tutors once a week if necessary. Perhaps more interaction with schools and students will help remind everyone that students should ALWAYS be our central focus.)

Things I do not consider priorities:

1. Things that do not touch classrooms or students

2. Programs that only benefit a few students through the lottery and increase transportation needs/cost

3. Test fees for all students (I believe students should need to demonstrate financial need and/or a minimum grade in their courses to justify reimbursement).

4. The start of new programs before we have met basic needs at neighborhood schools.

I support PGCPS teachers’ priorities because happier teachers will be more effective. Our teachers should have the freedom to teach in creative and innovative ways without being mired in paperwork and restrictions. They should also have the resources to make learning fun and engaging for our children. Additionally, our county’s students should have opportunities for language exposure and gifted programs in every neighborhood. They should not have to literally “win a lottery” to access programs that challenge them academically.

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College Park Academy: A Look at the Data

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

A lively discussion at the April 25 Board of Education meeting focused on College Park Academy, a public charter middle and high school in Prince George’s County that benefits from a partnership with the University of Maryland. The argument centered around a proposal that the school reserve 35% of its seats for students living in a “catchment area,” a geographic area that includes neighborhoods close to the university. (Watch video of the entire discussion here.)

College Park Academy was praised for its comparative success on standardized tests — and rightly so. “As many of you already know, we have scored exceptionally high on state assessments,” said Executive Director Bernadette Ortiz-Brewster, “consistently for four years with our blended learning model.” Interim Principal Steve Baker gave details on the school’s impressive standardized test performance (watch the video here).

But no discussion of the school’s success is complete without comparing the population served by College Park Academy with that of the school district at large. In short, the public schools in Prince George’s County tend to serve a higher percentage of kids who have risk factors that may increase the probability of academic underperformance.

The table below shows the percentages of students at College Park Academy needing various special services, as reported by the Maryland Report Card, compared with the percentages of all PGCPS middle school1 students needing special services.

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Data from the 2016 Maryland Report Card. “* *” indicates no students or fewer than 10 students in category, or “* *” indicates the percentage for the category is either ≤5 or ≥95 and the corresponding counts have been suppressed.

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Parent Asks PGCPS to Engage the Public in Budget Reconciliation Process

On March 1 of this year, the Prince George’s County board of education sent a requested operating budget of $2.05 billion for fiscal year 2018 to County Executive Baker. The county council’s approved budget fell short of this request by about $75 million. Now the school system is in the process of reconciling the budget, i.e. adjusting the requested budget so that it is line with the amount approved by the county council. The board of education will adopt the reconciled budget on June 22.
Here, one parent advocates for an increase in transparency and stakeholder involvement during the budget reconciliation process. Below are her suggestions for the PGCPS administration and board of education. A version of this letter was sent to CEO Kevin Maxwell and to her board of education representative.

by LaShayla Clark

It has been brought to my attention that the proposed budget from earlier this year was not approved and is now being modified. I have a few requests for the CEO and school board to consider in the process.

1. Please invite and include the public in the process. We have thoughts on what is a priority for our children’s academic future in this county. Please take our thoughts into high consideration as you make your decisions.

2. Please make this process more transparent. I looked on the website to try to learn more and I did not find anything regarding the current reconciliation process as far as what is being considered to receive less money. Most of what I have learned has come from other sources. Please provide explanation on the categories that are being considered to receive less funding than previously approved.

3. Please make your decision student centered. As I look at reports, I see a growing trend of higher student-to-teacher ratios and lower SAT scores. Please put more quality teachers in the classroom and in positions that directly affect our students and fewer people in top-level administrative positions. Students are falling through the cracks in these large class sizes. Teachers want and deserve quality benefits and an enriching work environment. Please do not remove or decrease incentives that attract and retain a quality workforce.

Thank you for your consideration.

Board Member Wallace Answers Questions About Customer Service Handbook and Secret Shopper Program

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Board Member K. Alexander Wallace (District 7) answered our questions about the new Customer Service Handbook developed by Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS). He also gave us insights into the new “secret shopper” initiative. The views expressed are Mr. Wallace’s own and do not represent those of the school system.

How was the idea for the Customer Service Handbook developed? Tell us a little bit about the philosophy behind the new handbook.

​While the Customer Service Handbook was something developed by the Maxwell administration and through the work of our PGCPS ombudsman, Dr. Edward Newsome, the topic of and discussion around bettering the interactions of all internal and external PGCPS stakeholders ​grew over time through collaborative discussions between the board of education and senior level administration.

As board members, we are often told stories of inappropriate actions, statements, or interactions of staff members, whether it be to a colleague or to a student, volunteer, or family member. Even a few board members themselves have received unsatisfactory customer service from PGCPS employees.

While these actions, statements, and interactions do not speak to the dedication of the vast majority of our nearly 20,000 employees, there is truth to the notion that “one bad apple spoils it for the whole bunch” — pun intended.

What is the timeline for training employees on the new handbook? Is there an initial area of focus (e.g. school offices, secretaries, transportation, etc)?

​The timeline for employee training and the order in which departments are trained will be decided by the administration. ​It is my hope that the training start with our support staff. While every department within the school system is extremely vital, it is a known fact that for every teacher or principal a student interacts with, there are several more support staff members (paraprofessionals, nurses, bud drivers, security assistants, registrars, cafeteria staff, building and maintenance staff, etc.) that students interact with — sometimes before they even step foot into the classroom.

Did looking at other school systems inform the development of the Customer Service Handbook? Who was involved in the creation of the handbook?

​From the briefings​ that I have been a part of, which were open to the public, the point was made very clear that not too many school systems of comparable size and demographic to PGCPS had a formal document that all stakeholders could point to and hold individuals accountable. Due to this, the handbook was formed out of a few key examples, including well known companies and organizations known for their high level of customer service: Nordstrom, Chic-fil-A, Ritz Carlton, etc.

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Approved Operating Budget Falls Short of Board’s Request

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

In a letter dated May 25, 2017, the Prince George’s County Council transmitted an approved operating budget of $1,975,443,500 for Fiscal Year 2018 to the Board of Education. The letter also outlined approved expenditure allocations by major category.

For each expenditure category, the table below compares the approved amount for FY 2018 with both the FY 2017 estimated expenditure and the FY 2018 requested amount.

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1FY 2018 Requested Board of Education Annual Operating Budget, p. 39; 
2 Letter from County Council Chair Davis to Board of Education Chair Eubanks transmitting the approved FY 2018 operating budget

As the table shows, the approved budget of $1.975 billion represents a 2.7% increase over FY 2017 estimated expenditures. But it’s a much smaller increase than the school system asked for. The operating budget approved by the county council is $75.3 million less than the amount requested by the board of education in March.

Yet, in most of the expenditure categories, the difference between the requested budget and the approved budget is small (less than 1%), and two categories even show a significant increase over the amount in the requested budget (food services and “other instructional costs”). The $75 million shortfall is largely absorbed in the “fixed charges” category. Fixed charges expenditures are approved for $76.5 million less than was requested for FY 2018 (a reduction of 16.7%), and $57.2 million less than the estimated expenditures in FY 2017.

That is, PGCPS is supposed to spend 13.1% less on fixed charges than they did the previous year. This is the only expenditure category to see a decrease in approved spending, compared with the estimated spending from FY 2017. In fact, several categories, such as maintenance of plant, and administration, are seeing major increases in allocated funds.

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Notes on the May 11 Board of Education Meeting

by Laura Rammelsberg

To view the agenda for the meeting as a PDF file, go here . To view in BoardDocs, go here.

Board members Raaheela Ahmed, Edward Burroughs, Patricia Eubanks, Sinora Hernandez, David Murray, Lupi Quinteros-Grady, Curtis Valentine, K. Alexander Wallace, Sonia Williams, and Chair Segun Eubanks were in attendance.

At the beginning of the video of the meeting, Report of the CEO.

On this day, 93 graduating seniors were honored who have worked through Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection at their senior celebration. He thanked entire staff at Hillside for expanding these students’ education opportunities.

He also visited the 2017 student-built house, which was built and designed by PGCPS students. Thanked the partners who helped make this opportunity a success.  This was the 41st house the students built. Every house on the cul-de-sac was built by PGCPS students. They have secured 5 more lots nearby so the work will continue going forward. The house is for sale for $459,000.

He recognized all outstanding students and employees for employee recognition dinner. May 25 at Martin Crosswinds in Greenbelt. Tickets are available at pgcps.org deadline to register is May 19.

Please thank a teacher during Teacher Appreciation Week. National School Nurses day was also celebrated.

Special Olympics had 600 PGCPS students participate in the spring games at the Sports and Learning Complex this year. Students trained for twelve weeks, coached by special education program motor development staff.

Prom and Graduation season is here. The 2017 graduation dates are on the PGCPS website here. Parents please speak to children about celebrating in a responsible manner.

At 4:52 in the video, Newsbreak.

Declarations of Independence (Senior Signing Day) at Oxon Hill and Flowers HS:

Dr. Eubanks’s comment about video: Exciting time for our seniors. The speaker at Flowers HS was Dr. John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education. We are attracting some of the greatest minds in the U.S. to celebrate with us.

At 10:21, Legislative Report — Demetria Tobias, Associate General Counsel, Legislative Programs

There is a report in April 25 posted with details about Maryland state budget, local bills and state bills. She is highlighting a few things this evening.

Local Bills — Took many positions, based on Board of Education’s legislative platform.

*HB 1568 Work Group on Transportation for Middle and High School Students in PG County — Look at overlaps in bus routes, look at systems used to transport students, cost savings for transporting middle and high school students. Report due by August.

*Bill that Impacted BOE structure — Bill as amended sought to change election of vice chair, override votes for recommendations by CEO. This bill did not pass. Law as written is what remains. Final report from school system, CEO and BOE due by Dec. 2017. BOE can provide feedback at that point.

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