School chief's firing halted

Injunction stops dismissal of head of Pr. George's system

Hearings to be held

February 04, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

The Prince George's County school board's firing of Superintendent Iris T. Metts was halted at least temporarily last night by a court injunction after state lawmakers had begun scrambling on emergency legislation that would create a crisis-management panel to rein in the board.

Circuit Judge William Missouri issued the 10-day injunction, preventing the board's removing Metts until further hearings can be held on her dismissal.

Del. Rushern L. Baker III, a Prince George's Democrat who is chairman of the county's House delegation, and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, planned to meet with Gov. Parris N. Glendening today to discuss establishing a management panel until a new school board can be appointed or elected.

Baker had expected to introduce a bill today or tomorrow that would create a five-member panel with final say over significant actions taken by Prince George's school board, including hiring an interim superintendent and making critical policy and purchasing decisions.

"A legislature that has looked at this current [school] board with great disgust and a lack of confidence wants to be assured that it doesn't run amok and pillage the Prince George's County school system," Rawlings said. "This is a very distracted board that is not focused on the education of Prince George's County children."

The long-simmering dispute between the board and Metts exploded Saturday night when six of nine board members voted to terminate Metts' contract and ordered the schools chief to clean out her office by this evening.

But Metts vowed to defy that action - appealing her firing to the State Board of Education and announcing her intention to return to work tomorrow - setting up a showdown that many state legislators feared can only worsen the situation.

"They left the meeting without even deciding who would be in charge," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the county's Senate delegation. "These people can't even pull off a successful coup when they have a majority of the board. We need to do something, and we need to do it fast."

The board voted to fire Metts despite a state law requiring it to consult a state oversight panel about any personnel action concerning senior management employees. The panel would then have 45 days to comment.

Late last night, board Chairman Kenneth Johnson told the Associated Press that his interpretation of Missouri's ruling was that the board was allowed to fire Metts, but must first give her 45 days' notice.

"We already know what the next step is," Johnson said. "We are going to issue the 45-day notice."

Beatrice P. Tignor, chairwoman of the state-appointed Management Oversight Panel, warned the school board late last week that it could not fire Metts without the panel's participation.

"The board clearly violated the statutory regulations," Tignor said. "I don't know that Dr. Metts, right now, is truly fired."

When Metts was hired in 1999 to lead Maryland's second-largest school system, her appointment was proclaimed 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.

But problems quickly arose between Metts, a former Delaware education secretary, and a majority of the school board members. They have battled over such issues as seating arrangements during board meetings and bonuses Metts has given to top deputies.

Tensions escalated 10 days ago when the board stripped Metts of the authority to approve contracts worth more than $5,000. Cognizant of the worsening situation, many observers had anticipated that the two sides would part ways last week.

"If we don't make some changes in the next week in that system, I don't think we'll ever have a person of quality to choose from as superintendent of schools in Prince George's County," said Del. James W. Hubbard, chairman of the Prince George's delegation's education subcommittee and an outspoken critic of the school board.

"With all the national attention this has gotten - the inability of this board to work together with a superintendent and their ability to show their power and nothing else - I don't think there'd be a qualified superintendent who for any amount of money would want to come here," he said. "We'll get the people who can't make it anywhere else, but we won't get a first-choice candidate to deal with a system like ours that needs some extra attention."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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