County school board deadlocked amid cross-accusations of impropriety
By Sophie Gorman Oriani and Kit Slack
On Sept. 2, six days before the county’s 130,000 school children returned for in-person school, county school board members tussled through another five-hour virtual meeting, vying for control over the process of hiring a staff lawyer.
Many Hyattsville parents are frustrated by the school board’s conduct. “There’s so much good in [Prince George’s] County, so many great people pouring their hearts out for kids. … I hate to see this dysfunction at the school board level tarnish the work that’s being done,” said Sarah Christopherson, the president of the Hyattsville Middle School PTSO.
Every Hyattsville parent interviewed expressed support for elected school board member Pamela Boozer-Strother (District 3), whose district includes Hyattsville. Debbie Van Camp, the president of the Hyattsville Elementary School PTA, referred to Boozer-Strother as “a functioning and ethical and professional representative,” noting that she was able to shield Hyattsville students and schools from some of the dysfunction on the board.
Back at the June 24 board meeting, Boozer-Strother took a moment to celebrate the orderly passage of the county school budget and congratulate all those involved.
David Murray (District 1), a teacher at a Montessori charter school in D.C., was the only school board member to vote against the budget.
The day after the June 24 meeting, a new student member of the board, Alvaro Ceron-Ruiz, took an oath of office. The same day, a group of six board members, including Murray, petitioned the state board of education to remove board chair Dr. Juanita Miller.
Murray posted a picture on social media of Boozer-Strother and board chair Dr. Juanita Miller at Ceron-Ruiz’s swearing-in ceremony, which he had digitally altered by pasting a crying Michael Jordan meme on top of each of their faces. The meme is widely recognized as a symbol of sadness in defeat.
“For a county board of education member to engage in behavior that would get our kids suspended — it kind of blew all of our minds,” said Christopherson.
Murray published an apology July 2 on Facebook, in which he cited “my deep frustration with Board leadership” and “an attempt to cancel the swearing-in ceremony of Mr. Ceron-Ruiz” as reasons for pasting the meme on his colleagues’ faces.
Murray, unlike Boozer-Strother, is part of a group of seven elected members of the board who often vote as a bloc and call themselves progressive candidates opposed to the county establishment. Six of them are under 30.
Hyattsville students may not have escaped unscathed from the board-level dysfunction. Several people mentioned the controversial March decision to divide Hyattsville Middle School students and transport them to three different schools during construction of the new Hyattsville Middle School. Christopherson called the decision “politically sketchy.”
“We’re quite sure there are several of them who made calls and used their personal influence to make that happen,” said Van Camp, referring to the seven young elected members.
A parent who opposed a prior plan that would have kept Hyattsville Middle School students together made a Twitter post thanking Murray and several of his allies on the board two days before the plan changed.
Both Christopherson and Van Camp emphasized the need for parents and community members to lend their voices in support of an investigation. “Somebody needs to do an independent investigation of what’s going on, and the independent part, I think, is challenging here because we know that some of these players are politically very connected,” said Van Camp.
County school board disputes have a long history
Three members of the current group of seven, Edward Burroughs III (District 8), Murray and Raheela Ahmed (District 5), were instrumental in the 2018 ousting of former CEO of schools Kevin Maxwell, Monica Goldson’s predecessor.
In November 2020, the group supported the election of Shayla Adams-Stafford, the CEO of an e-learning startup, over Bryan Swann, a U.S. Treasury Department official whom County Executive Angela Alsobrooks had appointed to a vacant seat.
The group has been campaigning for an all-elected board, hiring a lobbyist on behalf of the board to advocate on that issue and others.
The county school board has 14 members. Nine elected members represent the county’s nine school districts. The county executive appoints three members of the board, including the chair and the vice chair. The county council appoints another, and student government representatives elect one student member.
The current board structure dates from 2013. In the 15 years prior to that, the board switched from all elected members to all appointed ones and back, plagued by various scandals.
A few weeks after the November 2020 election, Alvin Thornton, a Howard University professor known for his work on state education funding, resigned as chair of the board after a two-year term. He told NBC in January, “Any time you have an elected body, an appointed body, you have new leadership, you have an election, it’s going to be difficult.”
A post-election power struggle drags on for seven months
In early January, Alsobrooks appointed Miller, a retired administrator and former state delegate, to serve as board chair, and demoted Edward Burroughs from the role of vice chair, over the objection of the six board colleagues who often voted with him.
Through a Feb. 8 letter to the county council, Miller advocated for closing down the school board pending an audit and investigation, citing the contract with the lobbyist as one of a number of contracts and hires she found problematic.
The seven allied members of the board responded by sending a letter to the state superintendent of schools threatening to petition for the new chair’s removal if she did not allow the board to meet.
Discord over the process for hiring a new attorney has extended from April to the board’s most recent meeting on Sept. 2.
The state board of education published a statement Aug. 9 saying it received a request to remove Miller on June 25, as well as member Burroughs on July 20, and Murray on July 21, and is processing those requests.
Investigate the investigators
At the July 28 board meeting, board chair Miller announced that an ethics panel had delivered a report to the board recommending censure of one member and removal of six members in a closed July 23 meeting.
The report recommended the removal of the six board members who sought to remove Miller, and sanctioned a seventh who often votes with them, according to The Washington Post.
Former vice chair Burroughs publicly challenged Miller, asking whether a motion to concur with the report was passed properly, with only six members not implicated in the report voting to support it.
In a July 30 Maryland Matters editorial, Shayla Adams-Stafford (District 4) listed complaints against her and six of her colleagues in the ethics report. According to Adams-Stafford, the seven board members are accused of advocating for community workforce agreements that would benefit LiUNA, a union that contributed to their campaigns. She also said the report criticized them for hiring the lobbyist to advocate for an all-elected board and initiating a controversial reorganization of board staff.
Adams-Stafford contended that the board’s labor advocacy did not specify a particular union that would benefit from the workforce agreements. She said that the board had hired its own lobbyist in the past — though the periods she specified were prior to the board’s 2013 reorganization.
As for the board staff reorganization, she noted that she and her colleagues followed proper protocols. Maryland Matters reported that the board’s chief of staff, hired during the reorganization, was already working full-time as chief of police in Mount Pleasant, and quit his board staff position after a few weeks.
The Post reported Aug. 24 that many area politicians had received mailed copies of the confidential ethics report, starting in June. The Post called the report riddled with errors, confirming several of Stafford’s objections to it.
On Aug. 27, the Post further reported that a small group of parents and activists called on the Maryland Office of the Inspector General for Education to investigate the ethics panel that produced the report.
The state department of education, according to its Aug. 9 statement, is accepting bids on a contract to audit the school board, with costs of the audit to be shared between the county council and the county school board.
Boozer-Strother said she cannot comment on the ethics report, as it is confidential. She says her goal is to remain focused on the needs of local school communities.
Readers interested in following developments at the school board level can watch meetings at pgcps.org/offices/board-of-education/video.