Rift Over Schools Chief Leads Md. to Intervene

By Bess Keller — February 13, 2002 5 min read
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Maryland’s governor and key state legislators are pursuing a plan to block the firing of a local superintendent and wrest control away from the school board that dismissed her.

Iris T. Metts

Position: Superintendent, Prince George’s County, Md., public schools
Tenure: 21/2 years (since July 1999)
Previous positions: State secretary of education, Delaware; superintendent, Christina, Del., public schools
Salary: $196,000 annual base salary, with $30,000 in possible bonuses

The lawmakers say that the intervention is justified because management of the 132,000-student Prince George’s County district sank to a new low at the end of last month when the board tried to fire Superintendent Iris T. Metts, effective immediately.

“It is clear that there is a crisis in management of the Prince George’s County public schools,” Gov. Parris N. Glendening said last week. “It is critical that we act now before the destructive pattern that currently exists causes permanent damage to the education of our children.”

In the long run, the governor, a Democrat, and Prince George’s County lawmakers want to reconfigure the existing, nine-member elected board to include some members appointed by the governor and perhaps some by the county executive, the elected head of the county. Such a change, which is likely to be approved by the full Maryland legislature, could take place by November.

In the interim, state leaders are working to pass emergency legislation that would make the local board answerable to a “crisis-management board” appointed by the governor, state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick, and County Executive Wayne K. Curry.

Possible Power Shift

The changes would mark the second time in recent years that the state has claimed authority over a school system at the expense of local officials. Five years ago, Baltimore ceded some control to the state in exchange for millions of dollars in new school aid. Baltimore has the state’s lowest scores on state tests, while Prince George’s County is second from the bottom.

Iris T. Metts

Officials were hoping the proposed oversight group, with final say over major policy decisions and purchases as well as personnel changes, could be in place as early as this week.

Such a move could keep Ms. Metts, a former Delaware state secretary of education, on the jobalthough maybe not for long.

“Given the frustrations of working with the board, she’s going to go,” predicted Delegate Rushern L. Baker III, the Democrat who heads the House delegation from Prince George’s County. “But we want to make sure it’s an orderly process.”

Mr. Baker characterized the school board as “making decisions based on personalities and petty politics.” School board President Kenneth E. Johnson could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Metts, who has been feuding with the board almost since she was appointed 21/2 years ago to lead the suburban Washington district, has reportedly interviewed for other jobs.

A spokeswoman for the Prince George’s County schools, Athena Ware, said her boss “at least wants to stay throughout the school year, to maintain stability.” Ms. Metts could not be reached for comment.

The superintendent’s defenders, including the three board members who voted against her termination on Feb. 2, argue that large egos and small-time politics on the board kept her from being more effective, although she had started on the kinds of changes that had won her a reputation as a reformer in Delaware.

She also succeeded in winning unprecedented budget increases from the county and more money from the state.

Ms. Metts’ detractors point to a drop in the county’s performance on state-devised tests last year, saying she has failed to improve a system that serves a large, middle-class African-American community. They blame her for communication failures and sagging morale.

The superintendent won an initial reprieve from firing when a circuit judge ruled Feb. 3 that her contract requires both 45 days notice and consultation with the state superintendent before termination. The dismissal is on appeal before the state school board.

Albuquerque Contretemps

In Albuquerque, N.M., another initially similar standoff has taken a very different turn from the conflict in Maryland.

After the Albuquerque school board voted unanimously at the end of January to ask Superintendent H. Bradford Allison to resign or face firing, Mr. Allison sent angry, accusatory e-mails to two board members.

H. Bradford Allison

Position: Superintendent, Albuquerque, N.M., public schools
Tenure: 31/2 years (since July 1998).
Previous positions: Superintendent, Davenport, Iowa, public schools; superintendent, Whitefish Bay, Wis., public schools
Salary: $160,000 annual base salary, with $30,000 in possible bonuses

The superintendent also declined to leave voluntarily, prompting the board to suspend him with pay. He had earlier vowed to fight dismissal.

In a surprising move, however, Mr. Allison sent a letter to board President Leonard DeLayo on Jan. 31 admitting to a drinking problem and apologizing for the e- mails.

“For some time, I have battled alcohol abuse, successfully,” Mr. Allison’s letter said. “With the stress of the surprise letter from the school board last week, I responded incorrectly by consuming alcohol which, in combination with prescription sleeping pills, caused me to act irrationally and unprofessionally.”

Mr. Allison added that he would enter a short-term treatment program.

In suspending the superintendent, who has headed the district for 31/2 years, the board cited a host of reasons, including what it sees as his lack of rapport with employees and community groups and his failure to appear at district meetings and events.

Neither Mr. Allison nor his lawyer could be reached for comment.

Last week, with the superintendent’s discharge pending, Albuquerque district voters rejected two measures that would have pumped $194.2 million into school construction and technology.

Some observers said the conflict contributed to the loss because it undermined confidence in the district’s leadership.

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Rift Over Schools Chief Leads Md. to Intervene


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