School reformer under fire

Metts: The Prince George's County school chief has made changes in a style some of her critics call autocratic.

September 09, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO - Forget the abysmal test scores, the principals fleeing for jobs in other counties, the computers that were older than most students. There was hope in Prince George's County a year ago when a new hero, Iris T. Metts, came to town.

Her appointment as superintendent was proclaimed as the solution to mismanagement so alarming that state legislators were withholding millions of dollars in education money from the county and threatening to take over its schools. Metts' arrival silenced them. They saw Delaware's former education secretary as the grand agent of change who would fire the right people, do the necessary restructuring and implement tough reforms to turn around the system.

A year into the Metts era, things aren't so rosy. Principals complain vociferously about her autocratic management style - for which she is unapologetic - and have said they've never seen such upheaval. The school board has clashed with her and last month angrily rejected an attempt to award her deputies - who came with her from Delaware - bonuses

In a private conversation with school board members before their most recent meeting, Metts threatened to quit. Sources say she was infuriated after members requested she stop sitting alongside them at meetings, and instead sit in the audience with her staff. It was a symbolic move the members hoped would tell the community that they are her bosses, not the other way around. After Metts' threat, the issue was dropped.

Observers universally agree they are impressed with some of Metts' reforms and say it's unfair to judge her after a year, but they don't agree on much more. Critics say her inability to win the support of principals and make change without drawing fire does not bode well. But supporters, many of them state legislators, say the radical changes Metts is putting in place are supposed to make the rank-and-file uncomfortable, and such is the price of reform.

Fighter wanted

"We needed someone who would fight, and be aggressive, and take charge and shake up the system," says Del. Rushern L. Baker III, chairman of the Prince George's house delegation, and the legislator who fought last year for the county to retain sovereignty over its school system.

Baker says Metts impressed lawmakers by making frequent trips to Annapolis in her first year and courting support from key people. But he is less than thrilled that her employees seem so sour.

Metts assumed control of a troubled system. A 1998 audit found so many problems that the Maryland General Assembly appointed an oversight panel.

The system consistently ranks second-worst to Baltimore City on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams, and only 30 percent of students are reading on grade-level by third grade. Seventeen percent of teachers are not fully certified. Many buildings are either overcrowded, in disrepair or both.

Enter Metts, who stunned employees with the speed at which she began her work. Some of her ideas have been popular, such as launching a new phonics reading program, upgrading technology so computers in the personnel department can interface with computers in the payroll department, and pushing through a contract for teachers that would give them their biggest raise in 16 years.

But other decisions, made with little input from employees, have drawn fire. This year, she implemented full-day kindergarten systemwide. Parents say they found out about the new format too late to plan their schedules, and principals say they learned too late to find staffing. Metts has demoted vice principals and principals and cut jobs in the curriculum department. But no move caused more rancor than a decision to shift $4 million from schools in wealthy neighborhoods to schools in poverty-stricken areas.

"This is the worst I've felt in all my years in Prince George's County," says a veteran principal who, like another colleague, requested anonymity, saying Metts has ordered them not to speak to the media. "I don't feel anyone is listening to me. And decisions are being made to the detriment of the children. It's very depressing."

Metts, amid a firestorm of complaints, found ways to return most of the money to the wealthier schools. But she insists that, without the shift, grant money earmarked for poor neighborhoods would continue to land in wealthy neighborhoods.

She also defends her decision not to seek opinions from principals before acting.

"What would they have said to me?" says Metts. "Don't do it."

Metts, 56, is proud of her "tenacity" and says she came to Prince George's with a plan to act quickly and boldly in the first year, to instill confidence in state officials, implementing radical if unpopular initiatives even without consensus. In her second year, she says, she'll worry more about mending relationships with staff, adding, " ... The window of opportunity to effect change is small."

Especially when powerful lawmakers in Annapolis are watching.

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