The bitter infighting that dominated the Prince George’s County school board much of last year has spilled into the four races on the ballot Nov. 6, with a slate of young candidates challenging establishment-backed incumbents by promising new ideas and forceful oversight.
The heated contests have included accusations of aggression, voter fraud and ageism. They underscore angry political divisions in the overwhelmingly Democratic county, where mostly young, progressive candidates are increasingly challenging more moderate Democrats.
A raft of elected officials — including state’s attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), who is running unopposed for county executive — have endorsed three incumbents and one small business owner competing for an open seat.
The other candidates in those races — three of whom are under 30 — have the backing of the teacher’s union, the activist group Progressive Maryland and the 14-member Board of Education’s vocal “minority bloc.”
Board member Edward Burroughs III (District 8), a member of the minority bloc who led the public campaign to oust former schools chief Kevin Maxwell, said the younger candidates would bring increased accountability to the board and, unlike the incumbents, “would have no allegiance to politicians and be willing to do things differently.”
Those challenging the establishment-backed picks are touting their outsider status, saying it makes them more likely to provide strong oversight of a school system plagued by controversies including large pay raises to top aides, inflated graduation rates, a sex abuse scandal and the loss of a multimillion-dollar Head Start grant.
“I know there are problems in the schools, and I’m going to tell it all,” said Belinda Queen, who is challenging incumbent Carolyn Boston (District 6), the current board vice-chair. “I’m going to speak up for the people.”
Critics of the minority bloc accuse them of seeking the media spotlight and failing to work constructively with their fellow board members — problems they say would be exacerbated if the group adds new members Nov 6.
“It would be a disaster,” Boston said. “We need to work together and to speak with one voice.”
State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who was president of the Prince George’s teachers union in the 1980s, said he worries the minority bloc members and the candidates they support would mostly talk about “how terrible the school system is, instead of trying to build and improve it.”
“There’s already too much time spent on figuring out who to blame and too little time spent on finding solutions,” Pinsky said.
Outside the College Park Community Center Wednesday, challenger Joshua Thomas, who is seeking the District 2 seat, made his pitch to a steady stream of early voters.
“My opponent is a kind, decent, intelligent person, but she hasn’t been standing up to the people that matter,” Thomas, 25, a recruiter for Teach for America, said of incumbent Lupi Grady, 45, the chief executive of the Latin American Youth Center.
“What it comes down to is this,” Thomas concluded. “Elected officials support my opponent, and the teachers union endorsed me.”
Council member Deni Taveras (D-District 2) accused Thomas of being “rude” and “disrespectful” at the polls, saying he and Burroughs push past other candidates to get to voters first at early polling stations.
Other elected Democrats in Prince George’s said the same. Longtime state Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) accused Thomas of sending out a “fraudulent” ballot that showed him with elected officials who had not endorsed him. In an email to constituents, Rosapepe — who like Taveras endorsed Grady — said Thomas was guilty of “Trump Republican-style dirty tricks.”
“I’ve never seen it like this,” Taveras said.
Thomas said he has attempted to chase down every voter he’s seen during early voting, but has always been respectful. He said he put out his own sample ballot so voters know he is a Democrat (school board races are nonpartisan) and so his voice is not “drowned out.”
Elected officials are belittling him and other younger candidates because of “ageism,” he said.
“People want to claim we don’t know what we’re talking about,” Thomas said. “But at the end of the day they just want to keep control.”
The other two races are in District 3, where Pamela Boozer-Strother, 49, is competing for an open seat against Juwan Blocker, 20, a student at Bowie State; and District 9, where incumbent Sonya Williams, 50, is being challenged by Arun Puracken, 29, a teacher at Accokeek Academy.
Puracken’s candidacy was challenged in an October lawsuit that questions whether he lives in the district he is vying to represent. The case is still pending. Puracken says he has sublet a room in a house in the district for the last year. He calls the lawsuit politically motivated.
The candidates for each school board seat are the top two vote-getters in a crowded June primary that drew 18 candidates in all. In each race, the establishment-backed candidates won more votes in the primary than the younger candidates. But the younger slate has knocked on thousands of doors since then to introduce themselves to voters, trying to tap into dissatisfaction with the county’s public schools and urging voters to change the status quo.
Boozer-Strother and the incumbents were included on the “sample ballots” put out by state senators. A developer-funded slate, which spent $10,500 from Sept. 27 to Oct. 21, sent out mailers supporting those candidates.
Thomas E. Dernoga (D), a former council member who will return to the dais in January to represent District 1, said the campaigns of the younger candidates have upset lawmakers in Prince George’s who are “used to designating who wins.”
“They expect people to come to them and get in line,” said Dernoga, who was a mentor to Burroughs and school board member David Murray (District 1), another member of the minority bloc. “But these younger people are out here working hard and getting more yard signs up. That’s disconcerting for them.”
Via Washington Post