MARYLAND MATTERS: Prince George’s County schools CEO Monica Goldson was the first of four witnesses to testify Tuesday during a virtual hearing on whether to remove embattled school board chair Juanita Miller.
Board member Pamela Boozer-Strother, former board vice chair Sonya Williams and Suzann King, former executive director of the county’s school board also testified at the hearing, which began around 9:30 a.m.
Held before Judge Richard O’Connor of the Maryland Administrative Office of Hearings, the purpose was to review charges against Miller that include misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty and incompetence.
Six current and former school board members have made those allegations against Miller since County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) appointed her to the post in January 2021.
Those who filed a formal complaint against Miller are Raaheela Ahmed, Edward Burroughs III, Kenneth Harris, David Murray, Shayla Adams-Stafford and Joshua Thomas and represented by attorney Brandon Cooper. Ahmed, Burroughs and Thomas are no longer on the school board.
The Maryland State Board of Education voted in May to issue a notice of charges against Miller after some of her board colleagues, along with some county residents, petitioned in January to remove her as tensions rose over her leadership of the board.
Miller requested the administrative hearing.
Bruce Marcus, an attorney for Miller, asked about whether contracts that would cost $25,000 would need school board approval.
Goldson said the board would vote if a law firm’s contract exceeded $25,000 and was ongoing.
However, Cooper said the board has approved contracts on a temporary basis, as it did with lawyer Andrew Nussbaum, who manages his own practice in Howard County.
Nussbaum served as interim counsel to the board last year after board counsel Roger Thomas resigned.
Goldson said the board didn’t take a formal vote for a $24,999 contract with Karpinski, Cornbrooks & Karp of Baltimore.
Kevin Karpinski, managing partner of the firm, testified Monday.
One allegation deals with Miller approving the contract to hire the firm for advice without the full board’s consent.
Judge O’Connor asked Goldson whether the board chair has authority to sign a contract under $25,000 for interim legal services.
“Yes,” Goldson said.
Cooper asked Goldson if she had any role or advice for Alsobrooks in selecting Miller as the chair. Alsobrooks appointed both Goldson and Miller to their positions.
“We’re way out of bounds here, including what may well be executive privilege.” Marcus said.
The judge asked Cooper, “What difference does it make how the board chair was selected?”
Cooper said his clients believe it “does make a difference depending on the credibility of witnesses, your honor.”
The judge said Goldson’s position doesn’t take away from her credibility, so Goldson didn’t have to answer Cooper’s question.
‘Outright crazy show’
The longest testimony came from Williams, who served on the Prince George’s school board since 2014. She served as vice chair this year, until last month, because she didn’t seek reelection.
Marcus asked Williams dozens of questions over more than two hours to summarize her educational and professional background and her time on the board.
Williams said, as did Goldson, that the school board doesn’t have to vote on contracts less than $25,000.
Williams also said that, in the absence of the chair, the vice chair can sign contracts in the chair’s place.
According to part of the Karpinski contract displayed during the hearing, that contract was scheduled to last about 34 days until June 30, 2021.
Part of Williams’ testimony focused on disagreements and behavior that some board members displayed publicly.
She said former board counsel Thomas received criticism from some board members for his legal opinions. Rather than risk being fired, Thomas chose to resign, she said.
“I felt embarrassed to see him treated that way from people that had no legal experience. The meetings became an outright crazy show,” Williams said. “The attorney is supposed to be there to help call balls and strikes and someone who is questioning their opinion, it just makes us look bad. I have never experienced anything like that before.”
Williams said that board members who are part of this case didn’t subject Goldson to what Marcus called “unprofessional, impolite and rude” behavior. However, Williams said there “were occasions” when they asked Goldson the same question twice.
“She would answer the question again. In my opinion, the answer was not digested by the individual who was receiving it,” Williams said. “The behavior sort of showed the experience and maturity level of those asking the question.”
Because Marcus has more questions for Williams and it was slightly after 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, the judge said the hearing will resume Wednesday.
Marcus said Miller plans to testify Wednesday, that her testimony won’t be as long as Williams’ testimony and he will “try not to repeat testimony that we have.”
Photo: Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO Monica Goldson talks with reporters on the first day of school Aug. 29 at the new Cherokee Lane Elementary in Adelphi. Photo by William J. Ford.