Prince George's board fires school chief

Defiant Metts calls action illegal, vows to stay on job

February 03, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO - A long-simmering feud between the Prince George's County school board and Superintendent Iris T. Metts exploded into open warfare last night when the board fired Metts and she vowed to defy that action.

Contending that student performance and teacher morale have reached unacceptable lows, the board voted 6-3 to immediately terminate Metts' contract and told her to clean out her office by tomorrow evening.

But Metts called the board's action illegal and refused to leave, setting up a showdown for control of Maryland's second-largest school system.

"I will come to work on Tuesday morning," Metts said after the board's vote, to the raucous cheers of her supporters gathered at the school board headquarters.

Metts vowed to appeal the decision to the state board of education. "I'm not angry," she said. "I'm hurt, but I'm not angry."

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said last night that she believes the board acted in defiance of a clear statutory requirement that a state oversight panel be consulted on any personnel action. "On the surface, it appears that it is in violation of the requirements," she said.

Grasmick said she intends to call a meeting of the state board of education as soon as this week to take up Metts' appeal.

"I am alarmed when there is so much turmoil within a system, and that's existed for months now," she said.

Frequent clashes

In her 2 1/2 years as superintendent, Metts has often clashed with the school board on issues that were more personal or procedural than educational. Board members complained about where she sat during meetings, how much she spent on gas for travel in the county and chided her for failing to ask its permission before seeking a $4 million education grant.

The showdown occurs at a crucial time for the Prince George's schools. The system desperately needs more money - and would be the biggest beneficiary of a state task force's recommendations to increase public school spending - but the constant fighting between the school board and the superintendent has made state lawmakers hesitant to give more money.

As residents of America's wealthiest black-majority county, parents also are growing increasingly frustrated by what they believe to be under-performing public schools.

Grasmick said, "I'm very concerned about the polarized relations between the superintendent and the board and the constant focus on that relationship and much less focus on the children."

Temporary successor

A temporary successor to Metts will be named at a news conference at 10 a.m. tomorrow, school board Chairman Kenneth Johnson said.

The board is considering two internal candidates to fill in as acting superintendent - Associate Superintendents Howard Burnett and Scottie Griffin, said board member Doyle Niemann. One person has been identified as a possible long-term fill-in - Howard County's Director of Academic Support Services Jacqueline F. Brown.

`It's childish'

Niemann said he and two other board members would escort Metts to her office Tuesday to challenge what he, too, called the board's illegal action. He urged other local and state elected officials to join him. He said he also would appeal the board's decision to fire Metts.

"It's petty, it's childish, and it puts the system in grave peril," Niemann said. Pro-Metts board member Bernard Phifer added, "I am sorry, but it was mob action."

Metts' challenge of her firing is based on her assertion that the board cannot make an important personnel decision without consulting a state Management Oversight Panel named in 1999 to help resolve the county's education problems.

Three members of the school board and state Del. James W. Hubbard, a Democrat who is chairman of the county delegation's education subcommittee, agree with Metts.

But Johnson said the board has the power to dump the superintendent without consultation.

"It's time to put an end to the madness," he said. "This is the board's attempt to start a new day."

The county school board met at 5 p.m. yesterday and took the vote to fire Metts after it could not reach a buyout agreement with her. Metts would agree to a buyout only if she were allowed to stay on for 30 days to oversee a transition, Niemann said.

But a majority of the board members said they wanted her gone immediately.

Packed news conference

At a news conference packed with county residents and reporters, school board member Marilyn Bland noted that the county dropped three points on state test scores released last week and that five county schools were added to the list of troubled schools facing possible state takeover.

"We have an obligation to do what's best for the children of Prince George's County," Bland said.

"Then resign!" residents in the crowd shouted.

"Employee morale is at an all-time low," Bland continued.

"Because of you!" the residents shouted back.

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