Six weeks after a new chairwoman took over, the school board in Prince George’s County is mired in a controversy involving alleged improprieties in contracts and overreaches by leadership, claims that are being examined by Maryland education officials.
The contentiousness follows the appointment of Juanita Miller, a former water utility commissioner who in January became chair of the governing board in the state’s second-largest school system and has clashed with an elected board majority.
In recent days, Miller canceled a board meeting and wrote a letter to the leader of the Prince George’s County Council, saying that after several questionable incidents she is requesting an external audit of all board-initiated contracts in the past two years.
Miller also said she wants a review of the board’s reorganization process and a performance audit of its operations. While the audit is being done, she said she would recommend to the board that any board action be temporarily suspended.
“Once the results of the audit are provided, I will feel more comfortable with continuing the work,” she wrote in the Feb. 8 letter.
Council Chair Calvin S. Hawkins II (D-At Large) forwarded the complaint to State Schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon, with a request to consider any needed audit or appropriate action.
But Miller’s actions were assailed by the seven-member majority of the board, and the issue flared Tuesday, with community members saying that board meetings need to go on.
Miller issued a joint statement Tuesday afternoon with board Vice Chair Sonya Williams saying they are “ready and willing” to meet as a board to “review the operations of the school system.”
Still, Miller continued to cite financial and legal concerns related to several board members, whom she did not name, as she released copies of contracts she appeared to take issue with.
“We strongly oppose using taxpayer dollars to provide lucrative no-bid contracts to their friends or taking up board-initiated items that are the subject of the ethics complaint at this time,” her statement with Williams said.
Miller’s allegations were firmly rejected in a 13-page letter dated Feb. 12 to the state superintendent from seven board members, who called Miller’s claims “baseless” with “blatant mischaracterizations” of board processes.
A group of parents and community leaders meanwhile gathered outside the offices of County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) Tuesday, urging that important issues be brought back to the table. The next scheduled board meeting is next week.
“We’re glad they’re going to be moving ahead with meetings again but we want them to be accountable and make sure they are not weaponizing meetings or hijacking the agenda,” said Krystal Oriadha, co-founder of Prince George’s Change Makers, an advocacy group.
A spokeswoman for Alsobrooks did not respond to requests for comment. Alsobrooks chose Miller as chair and named board member Sonya Williams as vice-chair.
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A state education spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday that Salmon had received the letters and documents from both sides in Prince George’s, which she said are under review.
The board members said Miller had unilaterally shut down the board, which was scheduled Feb. 11 to consider issues including learning hubs for struggling students, the science of reading instruction and issues related to harsh student discipline.
If Miller or others do not support proposals, “it is their full right to vote against them at our meetings, but to refuse to attend future meetings indefinitely in order to deny a quorum and thus prevent the Prince George’s County Board of Education from conducting business is a willful neglect of duty,” the seven members wrote.
They said if the shutdown remained in effect they would petition for the chair’s removal.
They contended that Miller also unilaterally decided to seek audits without board discussion or approval, publicly disclosed an anonymous, unvetted tip that was a confidential ethics issue and made misleading claims about a lobbying contract they supported.
Miller alleged in her letter that a reorganization of the board’s office — supported by majority members — could have the propensity to create chaos and dysfunction.
She alleged that some board members were not focused on oversight of how to reopen schools safely or how to deal with new financial challenges, but instead focus on activities that “spend more money and remove people from their jobs.”
Miller took issue with a contract for lobbying services and said the anonymous tip involved an allegation of a potential conflict of interest involving that contract. The issue was sent to a school board ethics panel, she said.
The seven members said Miller’s actions resulted in turmoil and revealed a basic lack of understanding of how a board works.
Board member David Murray, one of the seven who signed the letter, alleged Miller was operating outside board policies.
“Under what democracy do you get to cancel meetings because you really don’t like what you think the outcome might be?” he asked.
He said it fell on Alsobrooks to make sure her appointees uphold their duties to convene meetings and facilitate the board’s functioning.
Miller released a document saying the lobbying firm at issue was not in good standing with the state. Board members said that issue centered on a missing filing and was immediately corrected, and a receipt was provided to school system officials.
Two other contracts drew her attention, she said — one for oversight of the capital improvement program and another for consulting on board governance.
“Both contracts gave me grave concerns,” she said, questioning the contract terms, an unnamed board member’s involvement and a process that she said “seemed expedited and improper.”