by Tommi Makila
The Prince George’s County Board of Education’s Public Hearing on Boundary Changes and Proposed School Consolidations on February 23, 2016 was an amazing and wild affair. If you were not able to attend the hearing, you may view a recording of it online.
The hearing was eye opening and thought provoking. The issues that generated the most comments were the proposed closures of Forestville High School and Skyline Elementary, as well as boundary changes in the Accokeek and Fort Washington areas.
As I was sitting at the hearing, many thoughts came to mind. It is hard to organize those feelings into a chronological narrative, so I am providing the following rather random list of thoughts:
- CEO Kevin Maxwell did not attend the hearing. Yet, since 2013, when the school board was restructured (see Maryland House Bill 1107), it is the CEO — not the Board of Education — who has authority to close schools. Moreover, it was the CEO who introduced these proposals for school consolidations and boundary changes (see p. 17 of this document) to the Board of Education. It was a surprise not to see him there.
- Sometimes people power works! The hearing was one of the most powerful public hearings I have ever attended—powerful enough to push the BOE to postpone all boundary decisions until next year. But residents and parents only seem to get involved when these kinds of drastic problems come up, issues that dramatically impact their children and families. In many ways this is natural, but we need to be engaged at other times too.
- We need to keep the needs of our students first and foremost. The Skyline Elementary closure proposal was the most striking example of student needs getting lost in the shuffle. Skyline has a large population of autistic kids, and parents convincingly argued that the school provides high-quality services for them. Testimony from the Skyline parents was heartbreaking. It is obvious that we must find a way to maintain the existing special services for these kids.
- Schools are important for communities. When we are looking at school closures or major boundary changes, we must work with the impacted communities and always try to find community solutions. Try to keep Accokeek students in Accokeek, Ft. Washington kids in Ft. Washington, Forestville in Forestville, and so forth. I believe that for local schools, strong community support and school pride are factors in their success.
- When looking at school closures and boundary changes, central office personnel comes up with solutions that look fine on their spreadsheets and maps. But they may not be such great solutions for the people impacted. It is the responsibility of the CEO and Board of Education (BOE) members to work with communities to really understand all the issues and find the best solutions.
- The process for handling these issues—school closures and major boundary changes—must be longer. While some community hearings on these issues were held in early December 2015, no specific plans were shared at that time. The first time actual proposals were made public was when the CEO presented his recommendations at the January 21 BOE meeting. The public hearing was held on February 23, and the BOE vote was originally scheduled for February 25. Considering the impact these changes have on communities, the process must be much longer and entail significant outreach and collaboration with local communities.
- Under HB 1107, it seems that the CEO can decide on school closures, while the BOE votes on boundary changes. It does not seem right that the unelected CEO alone can make a decision to close a school without the consent of the (partially) elected BOE.
- The reactions to proposed boundary changes reveal the need to strive for all of our schools to be of high quality. If parents felt good about all of our schools, boundary change proposals would not elicit the kind of strong reactions they often do.
- Threats about political accountability are empty, and our elected officials know it. Many of the upset speakers at the BOE hearing made statements about the “good” BOE members being kept in office come election time and the “bad” ones being voted out. While these are fine sentiments to express, they are not in line with reality. In Prince George’s County, evidence suggests that incumbent politicians stay in office simply by staying on good terms with the establishment/political machine. The only way for an incumbent to lose is by alienating his/her fellow incumbent politicians.