Board clamps down on Metts

School superintendent in Pr. George's loses power on contracts

January 26, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

In the latest salvo in a struggle for control over Maryland's second-largest school system, the Prince George's County school board has stripped its superintendent of the power to sign any contract greater than $5,000.

The resolution -- approved by the board about 2 a.m. yesterday near the end of a marathon meeting -- restricts Superintendent Iris T. Metts more than any other local superintendent in Maryland, state education officials said.

"I think this will paralyze the system," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said. "I am absolutely appalled. To me, if I were in this position, I would interpret this action as a vote of no confidence."

Metts and a majority of Prince George's school board members have been feuding almost from the time she was hired in 1999, with their conflicts frequently spilling over into the public. They have battled over such issues as seating arrangements during board meetings and bonuses Metts has given to her top deputies.

This year, state lawmakers -- fed up with the bickering -- appear closer than ever to passing legislation to eliminate the school board and create a new one.

"The board is making the system dysfunctional, and now they're paralyzing it," said Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's Democrat and outspoken critic of the board. "They're digging a hole that's getting deeper and deeper, and now they're pulling down the 130,000 kids and 16,000 employees with them."

Yesterday's action stems from four lease agreements signed by Metts with Prince George's churches to secure classroom space for the county's Head Start preschool program.

The contracts were worth about $1.9 million over 10 years, according to board members, and also included money to refurbish the church classrooms to ensure they meet building codes.

"The people in Annapolis are going to see this as more meddling with Dr. Metts, but we see it as doing our fiduciary responsibility," said board member James E. Henderson. "Contracts are under the purview of the board. If there's a problem, we're the ones held responsible."

The resolution approved by the board says that no contracts, leases of other purchases of goods and services over $5,000 can be signed by the superintendent without "express and explicit board approval." Any contracts less than $5,000 must be forwarded to the board within 48 hours of being signed by the superintendent.

The Prince George's budget for this year is about $1 billion, and Metts estimated the system has more than 10,000 procurement and contractual transactions each year.

"Unfortunately, we anticipate disruptions in the daily operations of the school system, and delays in payment to vendors and fulfillment of contracts to provide services for students," Metts said in a statement.

Metts and Grasmick said they have asked local and state education officials and lawyers to research the legality of the board's actions.

Metts was effectively given the same limits as principals in the Baltimore schools, who are allowed to spend up to $5,000 without getting approval from the city system headquarters.

Baltimore's chief executive officer is permitted to sign contracts up to $15,000 without board approval.

Sun staff writer Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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