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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Commentary: Do Post editorial writers live in the same world as the rest of us?

(Posted 24 Jan 2006)
Do Post editorial writers live in the same world as the rest of us?

That is the first question that came to mind when I read their January 22 editorial, "A School System on Trial."

My second thought was: Did someone pay them off?

And my third thought was: Do they read their own newspaper?

Here is their editorial with my comments.
"EVERY RESIDENT of Prince George's County should be on notice that the future of the public school system -- indeed, that of the county -- is on the line in the coming months. Decisions in Upper Marlboro, in Annapolis and by the citizenry will determine the quality of leadership that the county's education system will enjoy -- or suffer -- for years to come. Will the Prince George's schools, among the worst in Maryland, remain mired in the mediocrity wrought by political gyrations, or can an orderly path to improvement be found?"

If we follow the Post's prescription, the answers are almost certainly, yes, we will remain mired in polticial mediocrity, and no, an orderly path to improvements will not be found.

"Less than four years ago, the county finally put a stop to the excruciatingly long and embarrassing reign of a self-absorbed and financially irresponsible Board of Education. So awful were most of its members that the county's delegation to the General Assembly had to step in and replace the board with a body appointed by the governor and the county executive."

No, the General Assembly did not have to step in and replace the elected board with body appointed by the governor and the county executive. Once they decided to step in, they had numerous options, including calling for new elections or reform of the way in which schools are governed. The General Assembly chose to thumb its nose at the voters and establish a board slected through partisan political patronage.

"Far from perfect in its oversight, the appointed board has managed to bring unpoliticized expertise to the fore."

What evidence supports such a statement? Despite the Post's apparent wishful thinking, there has been no real improvement in either school management or educational results since the General Assembly intervened. About the only noticeable change is that the Post seems to be willing to forgive the total lack of any real progress under the appointed board.

"While the change has by no means been a cure-all for a system still grappling with poor test scores and high enrollments, internal turmoil has largely disappeared, a deficit has been erased, test preparations have improved somewhat, and facilities are being renovated and built."

Huh? There was substantial turmoil until Andre Hornsby resigned. We don't know for sure about the deficit because audits have been delayed, and just last week the Post reported on overpayments to staff of over a million dollars, as well as an assortment of fiscal concerns related to procurment and contracting. And
the board's facility priorities seem to favor building unapproved new luxury gyms (short over 800 required parking spaces), as well as a new high school for possible future students in Bowie instead of planning for current students in overcrowded schools in the northern part of the county.

"These improvements are fine but overshadowed by the board's biggest misstep: the selection of a schools chief, Andre J. Hornsby, who lasted only halfway through his four-year contract before resigning in May amid an FBI investigation and ethics problems. Although he has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime, Mr. Hornsby's conduct in office proved troubling enough; the school system had purchased $1 million in classroom equipment while he was living with a saleswoman who worked for the vendor."

The board first kept on Hornsby's predecessor for a year, despite her failure in the position. Then, when they hired Hornsby they knew that he had ethical problems in previous positions, and they vigorously defended him for months even after it became painfully obvious that he had violated the board's own ethics rules.

"Now the calendar takes hold: The school board is about to choose a new chief but with its options limited by the timing -- the middle of the academic year -- and other uncertainties. Moreover, under state law, the board itself is scheduled to be replaced in fall elections using a process still not officially set and with candidates not at all certain.

"If elections are held this fall -- and this is where state legislators and county leaders may step in -- the best recipe should include members elected by the entire county."


"One of the reasons that the last elected school board self-destructed was its makeup: all members elected by district, an approach inviting parochial thinking and discouraging countywide viewpoints."

The current appointed includes members alledgedly selected from the entire county. But they don't represent the best interests of the entire county--just look at the parochialism and political favortism last week when the four members from one small part of the county rammed through school boundary changes that favor their local schools, students, and politicians, at the expense of a far greater number of children and schools in the rest of the county.

And I can't help wondering why the Post hasn't attacked the election of County Council and General Assembly members by district--doesn't that also invite parochialism?

"If elections are to be held this fall, residents had best start immediately scouting the field for responsible, knowledgeable candidates."

That won't happen because the only ways for candidates to afford to run county-wide is if they are either very rich or selected by and beholden to the Democratic Party machines run by Sen. Thomas V. 'Mike' Miller (D-27) or Rep. Albert Wynn (D-4). Knowledge and responsibilty will certainly count far less than wealth, fund-raising ability, and party loyalty.

"The board must meanwhile do its best to settle on a first-rate choice for schools chief. As The Post's Nick Anderson reported, board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) has said that although she is not seeking the chief's job, she has not ruled out accepting the post if the search fails to produce an acceptable candidate. That could be a workable interim fix if the state legislature were to postpone elections and extend the term of the current board for, say, two more years."

Come again? It certainly seems inappropriate for the board, especially one that has failed twice now, to select its chair for the job. Tignor has demonstrated a blindness toward ethical lapses. Under her leadership the school system has been unable to keep its finances in auditable order. Her building priorities are certainly skewed away from essential needs. There has been no significant improvement in educational results. Is the Post endorsing two more years of failure?

"Regardless of whether Ms. Tignor were to remain on the board or be chosen schools chief, residents could use the time to put the focus squarely on education while seeking out the best managerial talent."

The best way to do that may well be to do the opposite of anything recommended by the Post.

Finally, for another perspective, read the November 5, 2005, Examiner editorial, "So who's dysfunctional now?"
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