ANNAPOLIS – Speculation about the departure of Prince George’s County Schools Superintendent Iris T. Metts Thursday fueled a movement in the General Assembly to not only replace members of the school board, but to cripple their power while they remain in office.
Word spread Thursday morning of a tentative agreement between Delegate Rushern L. Baker III, D-Prince George’s, and Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, to endorse a proposal to restructure the board with three appointed and six elected members.
At the same time, the possibility of Metts’ departure, which emerged earlier in the week when she was reported to be job hunting, spurred talk of emergency legislation to prevent the current board from choosing her successor.
“Nobody wants this board to pick the next superintendent,” Baker said.
The agreement between Baker, the county’s House delegation chairman, and Pinsky, the Senate delegation chief, expands on one of several controversial school board restructuring bills before the delegation.
The delegation had hoped to distill the bills into one. Gaining early Senate support for this proposal is significant because the two bodies have been unable to reach an agreement on past reform plans.
The agreement was said to have widespread support in Thursday’s Washington Post, but many delegates disagreed. By afternoon, Baker had given copies of the bill to only four delegates. The others had not seen it, much less agreed to it.
“There is not a consensus,” said Delegate Darren M. Swain, D-Prince George’s, who said he might support an appointed system if voters could approve it in a referendum. “If there was that much of a consensus, we’d vote on it tomorrow.”
The bill is expected to be introduced at Wednesday’s delegation subcommittee meeting.
The draft Baker and Pinsky agreed to would appoint three members to the board for a term-limited four years. It requires one appointee to have expertise running a large corporation and another to have expertise in education. At the end of the term, those seats would go up for election.
The board now has nine elected members.
The bill also mandates that Prince George’s County get an initial portion of the $1.1 billion in statewide extra schools funding recommended by a reform panel, regardless of whether the governor’s final budget includes the money.
Baker said he has the support to get the bill through his delegation, although some members have argued to keep the elected structure or send the matter to referendum so citizens can decide.
Citizen activists and local politicians have opposed any appointed-board proposals, saying they would weaken voting rights.
But the board’s antics this week only highlight its dysfunction, delegates said, adding ammunition to the idea of appointing replacements.
Losing Metts, especially while school is in session, would hurt the county but speed passage of the hybrid bill, Baker said.
“If they fire her, it will fly out,” he said. “It will sprout wings.”
The bill could undergo several changes, including a higher proportion of appointed members, before it takes final form, Baker and Pinsky said.
“This was not take it or leave it. It’s designed to get us on the same page,” Pinsky said.
The bill calls for Glendening to give the county an additional $30 million next year, and increasing amounts every year after that until he fully funds the Thornton Commission recommendations. Pinsky and Baker compare the supplement to money Baltimore City received when it restructured its schools five years ago.
“We are woefully underfunded,” Pinsky said. “We need a bridge to get us to Thornton.”
Many delegates have hoped that if the county straightens out the school board the General Assembly will free more funds. Delegate Howard K. “Pete” Rawlings, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has said he won’t send more money to a dysfunctional school board.
But if the county does decide on a bill, that doesn’t mean it will get everything it wants, Rawlings said.
“We don’t have $30 million,” Rawlings said. “They can do whatever they want with their bill, but the money is still not there.”
To Rawlings the plan is still too parochial, and he said the county will be fortunate if he doesn’t try to withhold some of the money already in Glendening’s budget.
Several delegates said they would be uneasy allowing the current board choose any replacement for Metts.
“I’m uneasy about them unlocking the doors in the morning,” said Delegate Dereck Davis.
Possible legislative solutions include an emergency bill to allow the board to appoint only an interim superintendent, or a clause in legislation allowing the new board to break the contract of the old board.
The board’s action was just the latest drama in a long-running feud with the superintendent. A previous attempt by the board to oust Metts failed by one vote.
The action also capped several consecutive days of bad news for the schools. Last Friday, the board blocked Metts from signing contracts worth $5,000 or more. Many considered the move an attempt to drive her out of office. State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick called it the worst act of micro- management in the history of the state. State test results released Monday showed further declines in the county’s already low scores. The next day, five more county schools, for a total of 20, were placed on the state’s probation list, putting them at risk of takeover if they do not improve. “Have they ever had a good week?” said Delegate Brian Moe, D-Prince George’s, chairman of a delegation subcommittee. “That’s the problem.” – 30 – CNS-1-31-02