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Lawmakers seek to defang school board

By Margie Hyslop and Vaishali Honawar
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Prince George's County lawmakers and Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday moved to strip the county school board of much of its authority, setting the stage for overturning the board's ouster of Superintendent Iris T. Metts.

They also are developing legislation to restructure the school board by swapping some of its nine elected positions for three appointed ones.

"It is clear that there is a crisis in the management of the Prince George's County public schools. I am frustrated that there has been too much focus on petty issues instead of creating the learning environment our children need to succeed. Too many of our school officials are engaged in irrelevent and petty power plays," said Mr. Glendening, himself the former top elected official in the county.

The state's impending crackdown on the suburban county is rare but unquestionably legal, lawmakers said. According to the Maryland Constitution, all local government, including school boards, derive their authority from state law. The principle also applies to the membership of school boards, which still are appointed in 11 of the state's 24 jurisdictions.

In 1997, the state switched the city of Baltimore's school board from an elected to an appointed one and instituted extra state oversight to improve the failing city schools that rank as the state's worst.

Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who has insisted on school reforms in Prince George's County, the state's second-worst-performing system, dismissed critics who call an appointed board undemocratic.

"The process is democratic, [and] the Constitution gives the state the responsibility of providing a fair and efficient school system. Clearly the Prince George's system is not," Mr. Rawlings said.

"What's undemocratic is to have people without choices have to decide to send their children to schools that don't work," said Delegate Rushern L. Baker III, chairman of the Prince George's House delegation.

To resolve what Mr. Glendening called a "circus" and "an absolute crisis in Prince George's school system management," county lawmakers and Mr. Glendening said they will back legislation to create an executive committee with power to veto any major personnel action or contract over $25,000 that the school board proposes.

The personnel provision and a $25,000 threshold ensure that the current board — none of whom is up for re-election until November — would be unable to install a new superintendent selected by a six-member majority that many accuse of micromanaging and political grandstanding.

The Prince George's delegation approved the bill last night on a nonbinding 15-3 vote; two members who are school system employees declined to vote.

The bill now goes to the House, where the Ways and Means Committee could take it up as early as today.

The measure would be retroactive to Feb. 1, which would make it possible for the panel to reject the board's Saturday firing of Mrs. Metts.

The proposal also would give the executive committee — with two members appointed by the governor, two by the county executive and one from an existing Management Oversight Panel by the state superintendent — power to appoint a superintendent, and other top administrators, if the executive committee rejects two consecutive board appointments.

"I have agreed with the General Assembly, particularly with the senators and delegates of Prince George's County, to create a Crisis Management Board that will review all major personnel and financial decisions in the school system," Mr. Glendening said.

The move also would buy time for a second measure legislators are developing to restructure the board to include appointed members.

While the immediate focus has shifted to the emergency bill, Prince George's Senate delegation Chairman Paul G. Pinsky, Democrat, said recent developments make it even more likely the legislature will approve a bill to restructure the county school board.

Mr. Glendening and state leaders said the emergency bill to limit the school board could be signed into law at the end of this week or the beginning of next.

Board member Robert Callahan said the emergency bill in Annapolis is "a very tough piece of legislation. If passed, the board should take action against it in the courthouse." He described the legislators' move as "backroom, election-year politicking."

Mrs. Metts returned to work yesterday at the school system's Sasscer Administration Building in Upper Marlboro after a weekend during which she was fired by the board and reinstated by a court order.

In accordance with the court order, Mrs. Metts was served with a 45-day notice of termination yesterday by board Chairman Kenneth E. Johnson, but board sources said they might explore other options, like placing the superintendent on administrative leave or scaling back her authority.

Stuart Grozbean, Mrs. Metts' lawyer, filed an appeal with the state Board of Education yesterday. He said the superintendent was hoping to serve until the end of her contract, which expires next year, and not just for the 45-day notice period.

"The 45-day notice is not a valid notice. We think that the resolution that Judge Missouri found invalid made the entire resolution invalid," Mr. Grozbean said.

Sources said there was concern in Annapolis that Mr. Johnson plans to offer Mrs. Metts an expensive buyout of her contract as early as today.

On Saturday, the board fired Mrs. Metts 21/2 years into her contract after talks of a resignation deal broke down. On Sunday, three board members who voted against firing Mrs. Metts and the Management Oversight Panel won a 10-day injunction to stay Mrs. Metts' firing.

Although Mr. Johnson would not name her, sources say the board's choice for interim superintendent is Jacqueline Brown, a Howard County administrator, who was in the race for the superintendent's job in 1999 when Mrs. Metts was hired.

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