This audit could answer long-held questions about Pr. George’s schools

Audit

Four years, two superintendents and one bruising state financial report after the Prince George’s County Council first came up with the idea, officials are in the last stages of launching a comprehensive performance audit of the school system.

Council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-Mitchellville) sought an audit in 2011, under then-superintendent William R. Hite Jr., after years of upheaval in school governance left many residents skeptical of how resources were being used.

“We knew that if we were going to make a more significant investment, we needed it,” he said of a systemwide audit, which has not been done since 1998. “It will tell us what we get for the money we spend.”

In seeking the audit, Davis was trying to address some of the same concerns — about transparency, trust and accountability — dominating the debate about County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s plan to raise property taxes to generate additional dollars for the school system.

 Baker’s plan, which will be voted on by the council Thursday, has stirred concern and skepticism throughout the county. During meetings, citizen after citizen has asked the same questions: What happened with the money taxpayers have already given? And how can they be sure new funds will be used wisely?

The county’s public school system is audited every year, both internal and external. The federal government, the state, the council and school officials all evaluate specific aspects of the system’s operation.

But the audit that Davis is pushing is designed to be different: an all-encompassing, deep review that will take at least a year, officials said.

It would assess operations and measure academic outcomes in specialty programs. It would also show how well the school system has implemented recommendations from a scathing 2014 state audit that found employees were overpaid, invoices went unaccounted for, student data was vulnerable to cyberattack and cost-saving opportunities were missed.

“Audits are necessary to see where you want to go and see where you’ve come from,” said Beatrice Tignor, a former school board chairman who was part of the last performance audit, nearly 20 years ago.

Bids for the contract were due this week, and officials say they will select a vendor in time to launch the audit this summer.

The findings will come too late to affect the council’s vote on whether to back Baker’s 15 percent tax increase. Approval, so far, seems unlikely, since no council member has come out in support.

They will complete a process that started in 2012, when then-council Chair Andrea C. Harrison (D-Springdale) sought an audit that would, according to a letter she wrote to then-Board of Education Chair Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5), “provide valuable insight and information for future decision-making with respect to the budgetary process.”

The audit was to be prepared for the next fiscal year, but that didn’t happen. Harrison said the previous board was reluctant to move forward on an agreement.

Hite left in 2012 and was replaced by an interim superintendent, while Baker (D) lobbied the state legislature to grant him more power over the school system.

State lawmakers gave Baker the authority to hire a schools chief — he picked Kevin Maxwell — and approved legislation that gave him significantly more influence over board members.

When Maxwell came on board, he conducted his own transition report, which found weaknesses in how the system develops staff, implements curriculum and integrates technology.

School officials said an audit should measure whether the system has made progress in those areas and paint a clearer picture of academic outcomes, graduation rates and test scores.

“If there is information that increases public trust and informs decision makers to help us to improve as a system, then I am all for it,” said Segun C. Eubanks, the school board’s chairman.

By Arelis Hernández covers Prince George’s County as part of The Washington Post’s local staff.

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