- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

ANNAPOLIS Maryland legislators want to give a state-appointed body veto power over certain actions by the Prince George's County school board, a measure that some county school officials equate with a state takeover.

After a testy hearing yesterday, in which the Management Oversight Panel's (MOP) chairman criticized school officials for evading oversight, Prince George's House delegation Chairman Rushern L. Baker III said he intends to introduce legislation to give the panel "sufficient teeth."

The legislation would set "benchmarks" to ensure that school officials give MOP information before they take action on matters the panel wants to track and would make it clear that MOP's role is "more than advisory," Mr. Baker said.

"I'm afraid the school board can still decide whether it wants to give them information or not," said Mr. Baker, a Democrat.

After receiving a clean report from auditors hired by the state to check the board's compliance with their own revised expense-account policies, members of the House Appropriations Committee heard from a frustrated MOP chairman, Artis Hampshire Cowan.

She told legislators that oversight-panel members, charged with monitoring school reform, had been "anxious" to help as free consultants to the system.

"Unfortunately, that early enthusiasm has changed to frustration and disappointment," she said. "Now, it appears that while the new administration does have a plan for reform … and [is] making some efforts to be more cooperative, there is still the impression that if the panel is marginalized and given information too late in the process to make a difference, the panel will fade away and disappear."

Mrs. Cowan added that because the 2-year-old panel has no authority to enforce its recommendations, the body is "effectively neutralized."

Mr. Baker's proposal aims to remedy that. The measure also offers legislators a more politically palatable alternative to two pending bills that aim to restructure the school board, measures that failed in 1998. But county school officials still expressed horror over the idea, saying privately that the measure equals "takeover."

"This essentially would be a control board," said one board member, comparing it to the D.C. financial control board that until recently managed the schools. "They are only proposing this to appease" House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings.

Mr. Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat, wields much power over allocation of state aid, which the county needs to build schools and hire enough qualified teachers. But Mr. Rawlings has demanded that the Prince George's school board demonstrate accountability and progress first. Yesterday, he made it repeatedly known that he wants to replace the current nine-member elected board with an appointed board.

Members of the county's delegation said they would do almost anything to stop him, including introducing bills of their own.

Delegate James Hubbard, Prince George's Democrat, has authored two bills attempting to restructure the board. One calls for an appointed board; the other a board that combines districts and adds at-large members.

But some legislators said privately yesterday that there seems to be little legislative momentum to pass either of those this year.

At the same time, many said they would support Mr. Baker's proposal. "After what I heard in that room, I think we need to do something," said Sen. Leo Green, Prince George's Democrat and the Senate's liaison to the MOP. "Right now, the school system is ignoring the [oversight] panel. They can't do that if we put more teeth on them."

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