Prince George's leaders ask Assembly to strip county's school board of power

Legislators, officials agree to support `crisis' panel

February 08, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Describing their school system as being in "crisis," Prince George's County political leaders asked the General Assembly yesterday to strip their local school board of its powers.

"I refuse to stand by silently while the board acts like the band on the Titanic as things are spilling over," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III, a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the county's House delegation. "We are in an emergency crisis situation where we need to take action."

The Assembly has put on the fast track a plan to create a "crisis management board" appointed by the governor, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and County Executive Wayne K. Curry. At yesterday's hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee, Curry described the board as being in an "unstoppable meltdown reaction."

"There is a careening, purposeless aggression between the board and the superintendent, with the children being hurt in the byplay," Curry said. "We've got to bring some stability to it, and then think long term."

The majority of Prince George's legislators and other political leaders agreed to back the emergency panel after last weekend's aborted attempt by the county's elected school board to fire Superintendent Iris T. Metts

Metts and most of the board have been fighting almost from the time she came to Prince George's 2 1/2 years ago, arguing over such issues as bonuses for her deputies and seating arrangements at board meetings.

The board voted 6-3 Saturday night to fire Metts. But a county circuit judge temporarily blocked the action Sunday, ruling the board had failed to give Metts proper notice. The board's chairman has since given her a written 45-day termination notice.

Appeals to the state school board have been filed by Metts, the three board members who opposed her firing and the state Management Oversight Panel created in 1999 to help resolve the county's education problems. The state board is scheduled to hear arguments on those appeals at 3:30 p.m. Monday.

But most Prince George's political leaders say they can't afford to wait, and they agreed this week to push an emergency bill through the Assembly.

"We are in a crisis situation, and crisis situations demand immediate responses," said Dorothy F. Bailey, vice chairwoman of the County Council.

The Prince George's school board also was criticized last night as it held a regularly scheduled meeting, with several parents criticizing the treatment of Metts.

Theresa Dudley said she took Friday off last week to lobby lawmakers in Annapolis to keep an elected school board. but felt betrayed when she woke the next day to learn that the board wanted to fire Metts.

"You have embarrassed me as a citizen, as a teacher and everyone else in this county," she told board members. "You need to be sent to the woodshed to come up with a solution."

Board member Angie Como said the dispute has covered up the real problem, that schools aren't performing well under Metts' leadership, and noted lower standardized test scores and funding problems.

"Our system has been in chaos since Dr. Metts came here," Como said.

Metts sat across from board members who called for her firing last weekend, but the issue was not discussed during the public business portion of the meeting.

Some people in the audience wore buttons with Metts' photo.

Under the state bill to create the crisis board, the governor would appoint two members, the county executive would appoint two and Grasmick would appoint the fifth. The crisis board would oversee the system until county legislators agree on a structure to replace the current elected board.

The elected board would have to get the new panel's permission on major policy decisions, personnel actions and purchases in excess of $25,000. The new structure would mark the most significant shift in authority over a school system since Baltimore relinquished some control over its system to the state in 1997.

The emergency legislation would nullify any actions taken by the board since Feb. 1 -- including its vote to fire Metts. Though a majority of the school board opposes the legislation, none testified at yesterday's hearing.

The only opponent was County Councilman Isaac J. Gourdine. "We are disenfranchising the citizens of Prince George's County," Gourdine said. "This is not a crisis in education. It's a crisis in politics."

The committee could vote on the plan as early as today, and the bill could be on the governor's desk for signature by the end of next week, legislators said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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