Opinion: Union leaders for Prince George’s schools pen an open letter to the as-yet unnamed new superintendent | #schoolsaftey

The Prince George’s County Public Schools headquarters in Upper Marlboro. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

By Dr. Donna Christy, Benjamin Pryor, Martin Diggs and William Sellman

The writers are, respectively, president of the Prince George’s County Education Association; president of the Association of Supervisory and Administrative School Personnel; president of the Association of Classified Employees-AFSCME Local 2250; and president of SEIU Local 400

As Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) embarks on a new chapter with the appointment of a new superintendent, we believe this is a turning point — an opportunity to transform into a world class education system. We, the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association (PGCEA), the Association of Supervisory and Administrative School Personnel (ASASP), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2250 (ACE-AFSCME Local 2250), and the Service Employees International Union 400 (SEIU 400), stand together with a focus on positive change and solutions.

We believe our new superintendent must address three pressing issues: recruitment and retention, student behavior, and unsafe working conditions.  

One of our top concerns is recruitment and retention. PGCPS faces over 2,000 vacancies in critical positions such as classroom teachers, special education staff, administrators, supervisors, bus drivers, and food service workers. This has resulted in larger class sizes and insufficient support for students with individualized education plans. To ensure PGCPS compensates our members for covering these vacancies according to our negotiated agreements we have had to take the system to arbitration.

To move forward, the new superintendent must honor and fully implement our negotiated agreements. Upholding these agreements fosters an environment of trust and cooperation between PGCPS and its labor partners, allowing us to collaborate effectively on solving our most critical issues.

Our members want to work with the new administration to address student behavior. As incidents of student drug use, violence, and harassment escalate, our members feel disrespected and disempowered. They have witnessed the alarming overdoses and gun violence on buses and school property. Our staff lacks the necessary tools, training, and resources to effectively support students’ behavioral needs.

To tackle this issue, we propose a coalition of staff, students, and parents to carefully evaluate and address the discrepancies and shortcomings in the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook. A clear and enforceable handbook is needed to support our students’ mental and physical wellbeing and to equip our members with the tools to adequately respond to our students’ crises.

Additionally, PGCPS should annually evaluate and monitor the effectiveness of the student handbook based on school discipline data. Transparency is vital, and the findings from this analysis should be shared with students, families, staff, and the community, in line with Maryland State Department of Education guidelines and PGCPS Board of Education policy.

While the implementation of restorative approaches by PGCPS is commendable, it falls short of addressing the scale of the crisis. We propose dedicated staff at each school whose sole responsibility is addressing student behavior. In addition, our members require comprehensive training on restorative approaches. The system needs more than a single trainer assigned to all 210 schools.

PGCPS staff deserve a safe and healthy workplace free of violence, abuse, and exposure to hazardous materials. These conditions have a detrimental effect on productivity, job satisfaction, and ultimately, the quality of education provided. The decline in our working conditions affects staff morale and our students’ learning environment. Clear safety protocols, appropriate supplies, workplace regulation training, regular maintenance, and whistleblower protections are essential to ensure their wellbeing.

Increased stress is leading to more interpersonal conflicts between staff. Additionally, the Equity Assurance office currently has a backlog, and it has taken up to 1 1/2 years to resolve bullying, harassment, and Title IX complaints. This is unacceptable. A healthy, supportive, and restorative school environment requires a fully staffed Human Resources department. The ADA, Equity Assurance, and payroll offices must operate effectively, efficiently, and in a timely manner. These offices need a full complement of staff to meet the needs of 20,000 employees.

The challenges within our school system extend beyond the classroom and impact our communities as well. Embracing our community school shared governance model and engaging parents and community organizations are crucial to address root causes. PGCPS must enhance efforts to educate our communities about the after-school programs, food banks, and health clinics offered at our 109 community schools. This includes fully staffing the Office of Community Schools, ensuring every community school has a coordinator and a liaison, and completing and publishing each school’s Community Needs and Assets Survey.

We invite the new superintendent to meet with us to address these pressing issues so we can make a difference for the students of PGCPS. Together, we have the resources, strategy, and drive to invest in our workforce, our students’ social and emotional well-being, and the operation and climate of our schools in order to improve the quality of education in PGCPS.

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