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Metts' firing reversed

By MARGO ABADJIAN

Journal staff writer

The State Board of Education Monday voted unanimously to reverse the county board's decision to fire Superintendent Iris T. Metts.

"The county board illegally terminated her," said Valerie Cloutier, the state board's lead counsel. "Only the state superintendent has the exclusive authority to terminate a county superintendent."

The state board will issue a detailed opinion by its next meeting, explaining its rationale for overturning the county board's decision, said Marilyn Maultsby, president of the state board.

"Iris T. Metts is hereby reinstated to her position as the superintendent of Prince George's County Schools," she said.

The county board has the right to appeal the decision in circuit court.

On Feb. 2, in a 6-3 vote, the county school board fired Metts. Metts appealed the firing to the state board of education. A temporary restraining order, granted by the Prince George's Circuit Court Feb. 3, allowed Metts to go back to work.

The restraining order was initiated by the three county board members who voted against the termination. Those members, Doyle Niemann, District 3; Catherine Smith, District 4; and Bernard Phifer, District 8, through their attorney, submitted their own appeal against the termination to the state board.

Metts' attorney, Stuart Grozbean, has argued the firing was illegal because the state board did not consult with the state superintendent of schools or a school system oversight panel, nor did it give Metts the required 45-day notice under her contract. The board has since served Metts with a 45-day notice.

Grozbean and the attorney for the three board members who voted against Metts' termination were allowed 10 minutes each to make their arguments to the state board Monday.

"I ask you to affirm the integrity of the law as we've known it for the last 65 years," said Tim Maloney, who represented the three board members who support Metts.

Quick action is in order, he said at the hearing, as legislators are considering emergency action regarding powers of the county school board.

"The state board of education needs to act expeditiously," he said. "There has never been a more critical time for Prince George's County schools and Prince George's County than now." Grozbean argued that the contract between the board and Metts, which allowed for a buyout should Metts be terminated early, cannot trump state law.

"It would have been easy for Dr. Metts to turn and run. She has been publicly ridiculed, embarrassed and defamed both as an individual and as a professional," he said.

Metts was hired to "take charge and lead" and instead she found a board who believed in "micromanagement," Grozbean said.

The state board has no jurisdiction in the matter, argued Andrew Nussbaum, an attorney representing the board majority.

He called the dispute "a contractual matter between the county board and its employee, the superintendent."

Responding to objections that the management oversight panel did not receive notification of Metts' termination, Nussbaum argued that the county board is required to alert the MOP to hirings of senior personnel, not terminations.

The board has argued that it was justified in firing Metts, citing declining test scores and financial mismanagement. The board also has argued that Metts has approved programs and financial transactions without board approval.

The board and Metts have clashed over numerous issues since early in her administration. Board members have accused Metts of implementing programs without board approval. Metts has accused the board of micromanagement. Reports that Metts was considering resigning circulated following an action the board took restricting Metts' authority to sign contracts.

The board and Metts agreed to conduct talks to negotiate her resignation. But the talks, which were held Feb. 2, broke down. In a closed session that same day, the board voted to terminate Metts who has nearly 1 1/2 years left in her four-year contract.

The county school board once before tried to oust Metts. A measure to fire her last summer only mustered four votes on the board. At the same time, the board gave Metts a below-average evaluation, and no raise or bonus. Metts has appealed that evaluation to the state board.

After the state board returned from closed executive session with its decision to reverse the county board's vote, Grozbean relayed Metts' pleasure with the decision.

When asked if Metts will stay on to the end of her contract, he replied: "If she didn't want to finish her term then she wouldn't have gone to the trouble [of fighting the county board's vote]."

Board members who voted to terminate Metts said they were disappointed with the decision.

The board sees Metts as an employee, and without the power to terminate her position they have little supervisory power over her, said Kenneth Johnson, board chairman representing District 6.

"Now she has a license to do what she wants because we can't terminate her," he said.

Johnson said the board will have to meet to determine whether to appeal the opinion.

James Henderson, District 2, was also unhappy with the state board's decision. Speaking by phone from a rally in Annapolis protesting the emergency legislation that would strip the board of some of its power, he called the decision "third-world" and said "backroom politics has taken over Prince George's County."

"That's not what I wanted to hear," he said. "Obviously the decision was more political than right."

Journal staff writer Sarah Brumfield contributed to this article.

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