Power struggle, ethics complaints and lawsuits roil Prince George’s school board

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

Prince George’s County Board of Education members sniped at and disagreed with one another at a June 24 meeting. Screenshot.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

The Prince George’s County Board of Education is in crisis.

The panel, which is made up of nine elected and four appointed members, is riven by conflict and has splintered into angry factions.

There is deep mistrust and a feeling of grievance all around.

While the board has had rocky relations, bordering on dysfunction, for some time, things have deteriorated in recent weeks — with the filing of ethics charges against almost all of the panel’s elected members, a formal push to remove the panel’s chairwoman, and more.

The strife and legal maneuvering, most of which is being reported for the first time, have greatly alarmed top county officials and community leaders.

Board members have differing takes on what has precipitated the bad blood, making it difficult to gain a clear picture of events.

This much is known:

  •  Many elected members of the board — perhaps a majority — believe the only path forward is for Chairwoman Juanita D. Miller to go. Earlier this month, six members formally petitioned the Maryland State Board of Education to remove her from her post.

Miller, who was appointed by County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), steadfastly defended her actions in a lengthy Maryland Matters interview. She placed blame for the recent strife on the board’s younger members, who she referred to as “the children.”

  •  The swearing-in ceremony for a new student member in May was marred when one member of the board digitally altered a photo of the event by covering the faces of two women members of the board with photos of NBA great Michael Jordan crying at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Although the board member who crafted and distributed the image apologized, Miller said the incident represented a case of “cyberbullying” and a racist and sexist attack.

  • Ethics complaints have been filed against several elected members of the board. The panel’s ethics committee reviewed the allegations and tentatively concluded that members violated conflict of interest rules.

Some of the members identified in the complaint have hired attorneys and they have filed suit, alleging serious substantive and procedural missteps and demanding an immediate injunction to block the probe from continuing.

  •  A board-backed reorganization of the board’s administrative staff has proven controversial. The board’s newly hired “chief of staff,” who already had a full-time job as chief of police in Seat Pleasant, quit after only a few weeks on the job.

A staffer whose position was eliminated, Suzann M. King, has filed suit against the school system over her dismissal. She declined to comment.

  • The board’s meetings, which have been held online since the beginning of the pandemic, are chaotic, with members clashing, speaking over one another, and arguing about procedure.

The chair has struggled to maintain order.

  • The board appears to be without an attorney, raising questions as to how it will handle future disputes. The panel is set to meet Wednesday. Several outside lawyers who have served as board parliamentarian this year have moved on for a variety of reasons.

Miller, the board chair, maintained that the panel is represented by the Baltimore firm Karpinski, Cornbrooks and Karp on an interim basis while she interviews potential replacements.

But the firm’s Kevin Karpinski, the most recent attorney to attempt to referee the board’s sessions, told Maryland Matters he resigned.

“I only agreed to attend one or two meetings to assist with Roberts Rules of Order,” Karpinski wrote in an email. “Members objected to the Board Chair’s request that I provide advice on parliamentary procedure to facilitate more efficient and productive meetings and to avoid more violations of the Open Meetings Act. Once Members voiced their objection, I decided that it was more of a headache than anything else and advised the Chair that I would not participate.”

The faction of elected members that is seeking Miller’s removal is highly unlikely to accept any legal counsel she hires unilaterally, according to people familiar with their thinking.

Miller confirmed that the board will meet on Wednesday, but she declined to say whether the ethics report will be on the agenda.

While local news organizations have offered a glimpse on the board’s dysfunction and bad blood in recent months, the full picture has not been reported until now.

Top county and community leaders familiar with the board’s epic battles over hiring, contracting and procedure — and much more — are growing increasingly alarmed, but there does not appear to be a consensus as to how to intercede, nor do they agree on a path forward.

Prince George’s leaders are, by nature, protective of the county’s reputation, and they are weary of negative headlines about their public school system, the state’s second largest.

“I’m deeply concerned about the current Board of Education’s unwillingness to put aside their differences for the sake of proper governance,” said Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce President David Harrington, a former County Council member and state senator.

“The present dysfunction does not serve the county, its residents or its children well.”

As they contemplate how best to get the train back on the track, there is broad concern that the positive actions the board has taken to improve educational outcomes, including steering the system through a pandemic, are certain to be overshadowed by news that the board is in a state of near-paralysis.

That may be the only thing on which the Miller faction and the elected faction agree.

Miller ouster sought; the chair holds firm

A former state delegate and WSSC commissioner known for her direct — and sometimes unvarnished — manner, Miller was tapped by Alsobrooks to lead the Board of Education in January.

Alsobrooks turned to Miller following the abrupt departure of Alvin Thornton, a highly-regarded eminence grise and former Howard University administrator who once chaired a state commission on education equity. He led the Prince George’s school board for two years before resigning in the middle of the 2020-2021 school year.

Under a state law that applies only to Prince George’s County, the executive appoints the chairperson.

The petition to the state Board of Education seeking Miller’s removal was signed by six members. It was filed on June 25 and first reported by WTTG-TV (Fox-5).

It cites her “misconduct in office,” “willful neglect of duty” and “incompetence.”

The 13-page document lays out instances in which Miller, in the view of some members, “lied” regarding the hiring of a law firm in May, engaged in an “unlawful execution of a contract for interim legal services,” “directed staff to violate board bylaws,” and prevented board members from receiving legal information.

They also alleged that she has demonstrated “incompetence.”

“The actions by Dr. Miller that [we] have outlined … are simply the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the overall inappropriate actions taken by her since she began serving as the appointed Chair of the Board of Education,” members wrote.

“Dr. Miller’s continued presence on the Board of Education will only foster further dysfunction that impedes the ability of the Board to function and prevents it from performing its duties as required by Maryland law.”

The letter was signed by members David Murray (District 1), Joshua Thomas (District 2), Shayla Adams-Stafford (District 4), Raaheela Ahmed (District 5), Kenneth Harris (District 7) and Edward Burroughs (District 8).

In an hourlong interview, Miller defended her actions, saying she has worked diligently to focus on the needs of the system’s 134,000 students and their families, and to conduct board business in an ethical manner.

“I am doing the right thing,” she said. “I am doing the right thing for the taxpayer. I am doing the right thing for the school system as a whole — and for the general public. It’s really disparaging to have these kinds of antics going on with the school board members that take away from the integrity and image of our school system.”

“There are a lot of good things going on in the system, but they get overshadowed by the dysfunction of this board,” Miller added. “And it is my intent — through the grace of God — to do whatever is necessary to remedy that dysfunction.”

This summer the system will break ground on six new schools, financed by a cutting-edge financing system approved by state lawmakers.

The makeup of the Prince George’s County school board has changed several times over the last decade as officials searched for a way to improve classroom achievement, which routinely ranks second-to-last in the state by some measures.

Miller said the current “hybrid” system “could work, but you’ve got to have people with experience and exposure to conducting business, being knowledgeable of a school system, being knowledgeable of business practices …”

She accused younger, elected members of the panel of seeking to block her from serving effectively.

Miller and other critics of the group said the balance of power on the board shifted after November’s elections, when the group grew from five to seven, enough to prevail on most votes.

“They’ve very callous. They’re self-serving, and it hasn’t been about the people,” Miller said of the seven. “Until you get to the root of the problem, it’s going to continue to fester.”

In an interview, Alsobrooks said Miller is working hard to move the system forward, despite what she called the “horrible” efforts of many of the board’s elected members to block her.

“I think it’s disgraceful that — as we’re attempting to recover from a pandemic that could effect the education of our children in ways that are yet untold — that the body of people who have been charged with making sure that we are laser-focused on their future, are instead embroiled in adult differences that they have been unable to move beyond,” Alsobrooks said.

“I think it’s horrible.”

Alsobrooks and Miller stressed that the board’s dysfunction is nothing new. In separate interviews, each said that it has been going on “for years.”

Several close observers suggested that Thornton, a former political science professor and top official at Howard University, bolted in December to protect his reputation. He was not named in the ethics complaints.

Thornton declined to discuss the various controversies swirling around the board.

Ethics committee reviews three actions

Almost immediately after she took the gavel, Miller said, she became alarmed at the board’s decision-making, particularly regarding personnel matters and contracts.

In a Feb. 5 letter to the County Council, she complained that a board-backed plan to reorganize their staff included the elimination of some positions and the creation of six “potentially high-paying executive staff positions” at a time when the system was facing a deficit.

She also questioned the board’s decision to hire a lobbying firm that — it later turned out — had not filed required paperwork with the state.

“Since my swearing in on Jan. 7, I have been completely surprised by the actions of some members of the Board and utterly appalled by the items that have been pushed through by some members of this Board,” Miller wrote.

In light of her concerns, she urged the Council to conduct an “audit” of the board’s recent contracts.

Four days later, Council Chairman Calvin S. Hawkins II (D) told Miller that the council couldn’t perform an audit without the school board’s approval, something she didn’t have.

Instead, Hawkins wrote, he would pass her complaints along to the state’s top education officials.

“In an effort to address the concerns you have outlined in your letter, the Council will forward your letter and accompanying documentation to Dr. Karen B. Salmon, State Superintendent with a request that the State Department of Education consider any necessary audit or any other appropriate action,” Hawkins wrote.

“The Council appreciates you bringing this matter to our attention and for your willingness to serve our students and families in the school system.”

An ethics probe begins

After the Council declined to conduct the audit Miller requested, three “conflict of interest” complaints were filed with the board’s ethics committee, a group made up of five citizens, mostly lawyers.

One complaint accused board members of voting in March to expand a 2020 pilot “Project Workforce Agreement” (PWA) that required the school system to select asbestos-removal contractors from a list provided by Labors International Union of North America (LIUNA), a politically active union representing tradespeople.

The expansion of the original PWA, to lucrative capital projects in which contractors recognized LIUNA as the “sole and exclusive bargaining representatives of all craft employees,” followed campaign contributions to four members of the board — donations which were not disclosed when the panel voted, according to the complaint.

A second complaint alleged that a faction of the board muscled through a no-bid contract to hire a “private [Annapolis] lobbyist” to work only for the school system — even though the Prince George’s county government has a long-standing contract with a prominent firm.

According to the complaint, the woman the board hired was chosen because “she was unemployed, at risk of losing her home, and needed paying work.”

The lobbyist was to work on “one specific piece of legislation,” according to the complaint, a bill “to replace the appointed members of the Board … with an all-elected Board.”

A third complaint alleged that “members of the board, voting as a block,” appointed themselves to a “so-called ‘reorganization committee’” that used “an accelerated process” to oust administrative staffers.

Many of the employees “were females, individuals over 40 years of age, and other protected minority groups.” The staff reorganization was conducted in “haste” and included a “blatant violation” of the Maryland Opens Meetings Act, the complaint alleged.

After its review of the three complaints, the ethics panel reached a “tentative finding” that the actions of some board members constituted a “conflict of interest.”

Photocopies of the May 24 preliminary findings, which by law are confidential, were distributed to board members, a few elected officials and others.

It is not clear from the ethics committee’s findings which members of the panel were believed to have acted inappropriately.

Seven members of the board described as “respondents” were invited to provide responses to the tentative findings, but the complaints are vague as to which members committed which unethical actions.

At least four of the seven have hired attorneys. In addition to Ryan Lewis, who represents Adams-Stafford, former Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) represents Ahmed, Harris and Burroughs.

The ethics panel is chaired by Gregory Morton, a Prince George’s County attorney. In a brief interview, he declined to discuss the committee’s actions.

“Everything that we do is confidential,” he said. “So we can’t have this conversation.”

Attorneys involved in the dispute differ on whether board members identified in the three complaints were provided opportunities required by statute to answer the allegations.

Accused board members fight back

On Monday, Lewis filed an emergency motion in Prince George’s County Circuit Court, vigorously rejecting the allegations against Adams-Stafford and her colleagues.

He called the charges “factually baseless [and] politically motivated.”

The filing seeks a temporary injunction blocking the board from considering the ethics allegations at Wednesday’s meeting on multiple grounds.

The suit alleges that the ethics panel’s findings are “easily disprovable based on publicly accessible documents,” that the investigation was tainted by the illegal release of the tentative findings and that the court must bar the probe from proceeding to avoid irreparable harm to his client and others identified in the complaints.

Although Lewis, Ivey and their clients refused to discuss the substance of the complaints in detail because, under state law, they are confidential, Lewis’s court filing asserts that the campaign donations “were actually disclosed” and “do not require the recipient’s recusal.”

In addition, Lewis’ filing maintains that the ethics panel was “illegally assisted” by Leslie R. Stellman, a veteran attorney who has advised school boards for decades.

“[T]he Ethics Panel, members thereof, and/or Stellman, intentionally leaked confidential records related to these anonymous complaints, which records contain assertions of ‘fact’ that are both damaging to Plaintiff’s reputation and verifiably untrue,” the emergency motion maintains.

Lewis also calls the leak “a violation of Maryland law [that has] irredeemably tainted the Ethics Panel’s investigations such that said investigations must necessarily be closed and corresponding complaints be dismissed.”

In an interview, Stellman rejected Lewis’ claims.

He said he was hired legally by the school board’s acting general counsel, Gail Viens, who selected him based on his experience and his understanding of ethics law.

“The office of general counsel felt that it could not be handled internally for a variety of reasons, including a high volume of other legal work … and the potential for conflict because the target of some of these complaints were board members,” he said.

“Members of the office of general counsel report to the CEO; the CEO reports to the board,” he added.

Stellman vigorously rejected the claim that he or the board leaked the tentative findings to the media. He said he told Lewis that he was “personally insulted by any such allegation. I don’t leak.”

Board member apologizes for doctored photo

In an interview, Miller, the school board chairwoman, said the board cannot function properly under its  current membership, in part because elected members Burroughs and Murray hold sway “over that little group.”

“It’s going to require cutting off the head of the snake. I’m just being real upfront with you,” she said. “They have demonstrated they are not willing to work together.”

Miller pointed to a Facebook posting from Murray that included a digitally-altered photo of her and member Pamela Boozer-Strother.

In the photo, which was taken at the swearing-in of the board’s new student member in May, an image of Michael Jordan shedding tears — known online as the Crying Jordan meme — was pasted over the women’s faces.

“It was a form of cyberbullying. It’s a form of harassment,” Miller said. “It’s a form of disrespect.”

“To post something where you take an innocent celebration, to deface two members, two strong females, says a lot about his character,” she added. She also said the incident sent a bad message to the students.

Murray, who did not respond to a request for comment, removed the image and posted an apology in which he acknowledged his action was “poorly conceived, sophomoric and inappropriate.”

“My deep frustration with Board leadership culminated with an attempt to cancel the swearing-in ceremony of Mr. [Alvaro] Ceron-Ruiz, the first Latino student Member of the Board,” he wrote. “My emotions clouded my judgment and I made the Facebook post using the crying Michael Jordan meme as a way to express my frustrations.”

“I take full responsibility for my lapse of judgment, and I apologize for my action.”

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