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?
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. Far from perfect in its oversight, the appointed board has managed to bring unpoliti-cized expertise to the fore. 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.
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.
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.
If elections are to be held this fall, residents had best start immediately scouting the field for responsible, knowledgeable candidates. 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. 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.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company