By Donna St. George and Ovetta Wiggins
Onetime Maryland gubernatorial candidate Valerie Ervin was hired into a six-figure job with the Prince George’s County school system less than three months after she dropped out of the governor’s race and threw her support behind the county’s top leader.
In the final stretch of the campaign, Ervin regularly stumped for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who was in a heated battle for the Democratic nomination. Baker hinted publicly that if he were elected, Ervin would join his administration.
But Baker lost the June 26 primary. In August, Ervin was hired to a $133,200-a-year position as a special assistant in the school system’s Office of Employee and Labor Relations. Officials in the state’s second-largest school system said the job was created in August to improve communication with the labor unions representing the district’s 20,000 full-time employees.
At least one school board member, David Murray, raised questions about political favoritism.
“It’s disappointing because it appears that school system jobs are continuing to be used as a political bargaining chip,” said Murray, who has been critical of Baker. “All too often, the school system is forced to hire friends, relatives and political allies of powerful politicians in the county.”
Murray said that although Ervin is qualified for the post, he is concerned about the manner of her selection. “The circumstances are questionable,” he said.
School district officials said this week that more than 40 people applied for the position, which was advertised, and that four applicants, including Ervin, were selected to appear before an interview panel.
The panel had five members, including the school system’s legal counsel, Shauna Battle; communications officer Raven Hill; a human resources staff member; a local union president; and Christian Rhodes, the school system’s chief of staff.
Rhodes worked for Baker as his education policy adviser from 2012 until joining the school system in 2014.
The panel scored Ervin highest among the four finalists, officials said. Her appointment was approved by the school board Aug. 23 in a closed session.
“This decision was not made in isolation,” school system spokesman John White said. “It followed the normal process.”
Rhodes said in an interview Tuesday that Ervin’s résumé “speaks for itself,” noting her labor background and time as a school board member and County Council member in neighboring Montgomery County.
“She is one of the foremost labor leaders in the country and has extensive knowledge of how local government works,” he said. “We look forward to using her expertise to forge a better relationship with our labor partners, especially in the realm of compensation.”
Ervin did not respond to requests for comment on her selection.
Before taking the schools job, Ervin worked as a senior adviser to the national Working Families Party, a political organization that advances issues important to working families, including paid sick leave and increasing the minimum wage.
Ervin, who was a candidate for lieutenant governor earlier this year, was running on a ticket with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and decided to seek the state’s highest office after Kamenetz, 60, died of a heart attack in early May.
She ended her long-shot bid for governor in early June and endorsed Baker.
Much of Ervin’s background centers on unions. She started as a union organizer in the Mississippi Delta, working with laborers on poultry and catfish farms. She was promoted by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in 1987, leading her move to the Washington area.
As county executive, Baker persuaded state lawmakers in 2013 to give him expanded control of the county’s low-performing school system. He has the authority to select the school system’s chief executive and name the school board’s chairman and vice chairman.
A spokesman for Baker said Tuesday that Baker does not have authority to make hiring decisions such as the one involving Ervin. He also emphasized Ervin’s qualifications.
“Ms. Ervin’s background and credentials as a former Montgomery County school board member, County Council member and her experience working with labor unions, make her qualified for the position she obtained,” Baker spokesman Scott Peterson said. “The students, teachers, and administrators . . . as well as the taxpayers of Prince George’s County are very fortunate having a person with her background working on their behalf.”
Doris Reed, executive director of the Association of Supervisory and Administrative Personnel, the union that represents principals and supervisors, lauded Ervin’s hiring, adding that “she applied for the job like everyone else.” Reed described Ervin’s credentials as impeccable.
In recent days, some in the community reacted to a Facebook post noting that Rhodes drew a major salary increase, to $213,000 a year. Monica Goldson, interim chief executive of the Prince George’s school system, promoted Rhodes from chief of strategic and external affairs to chief of staff. His appointment, announced July 31, was confirmed by the board Aug. 23, according to White, the school system spokesman.
The salaries of Rhodes and other top aides became a flash point several months ago when critics spotlighted raises given by Kevin Maxwell, who was chief executive of the school system at the time. Figures released then showed Rhodes’s salary rose from $138,300 in 2015 to $188,100 in 2017.
His most recent salary in that position was $195,800, officials said.
Via Washington post