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Metts Named Finalist for School Post Near Atlanta

By Nancy Trejos and Manuel Roig-Franzia

Washington Post Staff Writers

Tuesday, February 19, 2002; Page B01

Prince George's School Superintendent Iris T. Metts, who was fired by the county school board and then reinstated by the state Board of Education this month, is a finalist for the top job in the DeKalb County school district in suburban Atlanta.

Although she has interviewed with officials of the 98,000-student school district twice, Metts said she wants to remain in Prince George's County for as long as she can.

"I'm committed to the school district. I'm committed as long as I can do some good for the school district," Metts said yesterday.

Metts declined to talk further about her employment and referred questions to an attorney, Stuart Grozbean.

Grozbean said that a search firm asked Metts to interview with the DeKalb County school district last month, just as Prince George's school board members were saying they would be willing to take a vote to fire her. The current DeKalb school superintendent is retiring and is scheduled to leave at the end of this school year.

"In the event that something would have happened, she wanted to know there was something else out there," Grozbean said. "Her actions were reasonable in light of the fact that there was so much uncertainty with her employment. It was prudent and in no way should reflect on her desire to stay in Prince George's County."

The firing imbroglio has prompted state legislators to consider a plan that would sharply curtail the county school board's power. They are also contemplating dismantling the board and adding appointed members.

Under the plan, which was passed by the Maryland House and is set to go before the Senate, a new oversight panel would have to approve or reject almost all of the school board's contract and senior personnel decisions, including the hiring of an interim superintendent if Metts were to leave.

"I would hate for this current board to be in a position of selecting a new superintendent if Dr. Metts leaves," Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said yesterday.

Rawlings said he understood why Metts looked elsewhere.

"Professionally, she had no choice, given the climate that was created by the adversarial actions of the school board, [but] to put herself in the marketplace," he said.

But school board members who say that Metts has spent money without their approval and is responsible for falling test scores and an exodus of principals and top administrators said they hoped she would take a job elsewhere.

"I think it's the best thing that could possibly happen to the children of Prince George's County," said school board Chairman Kenneth E. Johnson (Mitchellville). "I still think she ought to be out of here."

The school board is considering appealing the state Board of Education's reinstatement of Metts. Metts has feuded with the county school board since her first months on the job, but the relationship worsened last month when the board approved a resolution forbidding her to sign contracts exceeding $5,000 without its approval.

Days after the board's vote on the resolution, Metts indicated that she was considering jobs elsewhere but declined to say where.

Upon hearing that the school board was prepared to fire her, Metts offered to let the school board buy out the remaining 1 1/2 years of her four-year contract.

She also flew to Georgia to meet with DeKalb County school board members in the days before her attorneys were set to meet with the Prince George's school board attorneys to negotiate a buyout, sources said. DeKalb school board member Sarah Wood said yesterday that a vote will be held soon to select a superintendent from among four finalists. Georgia state law does not require the board to disclose the names of candidates until the finalist list has been whittled to three, Wood said.

On Feb. 2, hours after negotiations broke down, the Prince George's school board voted 6 to 3 to fire Metts. The next day, a Circuit Court judge ruled that the board violated Metts's contract by ordering to leave immediately instead of giving her 45 days' notice.

Johnson responded by delivering a termination letter with the proper notice. Metts appealed to the state Board of Education, which ruled last week that the county board ignored a state statute giving the state superintendent the right to fire a local superintendent, and it reversed the county school board's decision.

Despite Metts's reinstatement, some DeKalb County school board members have indicated that they would probably not vote to hire Metts because of the controversy, even if she is qualified, sources said.

DeKalb's superintendent search has been watched closely by Georgia civil rights activists, who hope that a black candidate will be selected. The school system was under a federal court desegregation order from the late 1960s until 1996. DeKalb's black population has grown dramatically in the last decade, rising from 42 percent of the county in 1990 to 54 percent in the 2000 Census.

The county's schools have struggled with low test scores and crowded campuses, presenting vexing challenges for the next superintendent.

Grozbean said that Metts, who is black, would not work in a school district if she were not unanimously chosen. She was tapped to be the Prince George's top schools chief in 1999, even though three board members voted for another candidate.

But the state Board of Education's decision to reinstate Metts has granted her a job security she has not had in months.

"After the unanimous decision by the State Board of Education, she is committed to staying in PrinceGeorge's County," Grozbean said.

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