- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2002

A group of parents and community activists in Prince George's County is seeking a referendum on the bill that ousted the county's elected school board in favor of an appointed one.
With less than a month to go before the appointed school board takes office, the newly formed Citizens for an Elected Board will begin a drive Thursday at the school board's Sasscer Administration Building to collect signatures in support of bringing the issue to referendum within the county.
"We are looking at maintaining our right to keep elected members. Under the proposed law, parents are shut out from every say in the school system," said Janis Hagey, a community activist and one of the group's founders.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed into law yesterday the measure that replaced the nine-member elected school board with nine appointed members and the superintendent with a chief executive officer.
More than 150 people have already applied for positions on the board, and the Maryland State Board of Education is expected to have a short list of 30 to 40 candidates by mid-May. Mr. Glendening and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry will pick the final appointees from this list.
Lawmakers in Maryland passed the bill last month, saying the embattled school system needed to be overhauled. Delegate Rushern L. Baker III, Prince George's Democrat and leading advocate of the school board restructuring bill, said he doesn't believe the referendum effort will succeed.
"People want change and the current structure was not working," said Mr. Baker, chairman of the county's House delegation and a candidate for county executive. "If we changed the structure we needed to put money in, and I think people now will have confidence that the money is spent correctly."
Whether there can be a countywide referendum on a bill passed by the General Assembly is up for debate.
A letter last month from the state's attorney general in response to queries from Sen. Nathaniel Exum, a Prince George's Democrat, stated that if there were to be a referendum, it would have to be petitioned statewide.
David O. Cahn, co-chairman of Citizens for an Elected Board, said he believed the bill could be subject to a local referendum, regardless of the attorney general's opinion.
If not, "we will see this in court," he said. "To take away people's voting rights is against democracy, it is against everything this country stands for."
He said his group hoped to collect 24,000 signatures for the referendum well above the 19,000 required by the state election board for a countywide referendum.
Other groups in the county are backing the plan. "They have taken away the heart of the county. People need to wake up and join us and let us know what they think of the new game our legislators are playing," said Minerva Sanders, who heads the education watchdog group Concerned Citizens of Prince George's County.
Some board members welcomed the news.
"I think this issue should absolutely go to referendum," said Robert Callahan of Bowie. "It was passed in an underhanded manner by legislators who had an ax to grind with the board."
But board member Doyle Niemann of Mount Rainier said those who wanted a referendum "are missing the point of what is going on in the school system. Through an appointed board, he said, legislators "are buying time to end the foolishness" on the current board.
"The legislature has the power to do what they did. This [referendum] is just a doomed effort," he said.
Delegate Carolyn J.B. Howard, Prince George's County Democrat, offered a bill during the session that would have put the issue of replacing the elected school board on the ballot. It never got a final vote in the county's House delegation, and Mrs. Howard said she will work to help bring the issue to referendum.
She said voters should not be appeased by a provision restoring an elected school board in 2006 because their rights would already have been taken and "anything could happen."
"You've taken away the people's right to self-determination," Mrs. Howard said yesterday shortly after Mr. Glendening signed the legislation.
Margie Hyslop contributed to this report.


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