Questions arise over influence on Prince George’s County school construction vote

Ahead of a major decision by the Prince George’s County school board on school construction, there were concerns about the integrity of the vote and influence by the county executive.

On Wednesday evening, the school board voted to greenlight a plan that will utilize a public-private partnership to build six new middle schools. Under the deal, worth over $1 billion, several private companies would pay upfront costs and handle construction, and the schools would be ready in three to four years.

READ MORE: Concerns over fast-tracking schools in Prince George’s County

A person who was being considered for an appointed position on the school board told FOX 5 they were concerned about the vote based on what they learned during the interview process.

The person said they were led to believe appointees were supposed to vote as the county executive wanted. The person, who said they did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation, provided an audio recording of part of the interview process conducted by Erica Berry Wilson, an adviser to the county executive.

“You may hear from me, you may hear from her,” Wilson states. “When I say that meaning, she may pick up the phone like, ‘Hey, I understand the board is about to vote on this. I’d really like to see this accomplished.’”

Wilson goes on to reference the school construction plan specifically.

Wilson said: “As I’ve described to other candidates for this position, there are going to be some key conversations going on” around school construction.

In Prince George’s County, there is a controversial hybrid model to the school board with some elected and some appointed members. Currently, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks has four appointees, including the board chair, and the county council has one appointee.

FOX 5’s Lindsay Watts asked Alsobrooks at a press conference Wednesday if she had told the appointed board members how to vote.

“Oh, absolutely not,” said Alsobrooks. “I respect the members of the school board. I’m a person who values integrity and transparency. And these are professionals who don’t need me to tell them one way or the other what to think.”

When asked about potential appointees being told in the interview process they could get calls from her ahead of votes, she called it a lie.

“That’s an L-I-E,” said Alsobrooks, spelling the word. “I hate to say it that way. My grandmother would be so awful –– I wasn’t allowed to say the word ‘lie’ when I was growing up in my household. But that is just so untrue.”

She went on to say she never personally told someone that in the interview process or “called anybody ahead of a vote ever.”

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FOX 5 later confirmed part of the recording with the county executive’s office. A spokesperson for Alsobrooks said Wilson was being an “eager staffer.”

Elected board member Raaheela Ahmed, who’s been critical of the public-private partnership, also spoke to the person about the interview process.

“Here’s the way I feel about it: tit for tat has no place in Prince George’s County politics anymore,” said Ahmed. “We wiped that slate clean and it needs to remain clean so we can maintain trust of community.”

FOX 5 reviewed minutes from meetings of the full school board over the last year. We found only a few instances where appointed board members did not vote the same way.

“I didn’t think it was happening in such an overt way,” said Ahmed. “I think that the fact that it has happened in the way that it is is really disheartening. To me and I think it will be disheartening to very many members of our community.”

Ahmed is the only board member who voted against the school construction plan. Elected member David Murray abstained from voting.

There have been calls for years for the board to return to a fully elected model instead of the hybrid, primarily because concerns about undue influence by the county executive, who also selects the CEO of schools.

When she was running for office, Alsobrooks said she supporting returning to an all elected board. Watts asked her if she still supported that.

“This has nothing to do with today,” Alsobrooks said. “Can we stick to school construction?”

Prince George's County Public Schools CEO Monica Goldson shared the following statement after tonight's vote: 

"Prince George’s County Public Schools is proud to take a major step forward in our work to address aging school buildings with transparency and accountability. Schools are at the heart of neighborhoods and communities around the world. We are excited about the commitment from Prince George’s County Education & Community Partners to be a true partner in designing, building and maintaining world-class schools. We also offer special appreciation for the support from families, students, educators, our Board of Education, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, County Council & state legislative delegation, and our civic and business community in doing what we must do for our students."