ANNAPOLIS – Prince George’s County delegates asked for immediate intervention to cripple the county school board Thursday, while toughening a long-range plan to revamp the board with appointees.
“We are in an emergency crisis situation,” delegation chairman Rushern L. Baker III, D-Prince George’s, told the House Ways and Means Committee. “I refuse to stand by silently while the board acts like the band on the Titanic.”
The committee is scheduled to vote today on the emergency bill, which shifts much of the board’s power to an appointed crisis management panel.
The five-member panel could veto major personnel decisions and expenditures of more than $25,000, and would dissolve when the board is restructured.
The bill blocks the current board from choosing a permanent replacement for off-again, on-again Superintendent Iris T. Metts, who in the past week has offered to resign, been fired and been reinstated. She awaits an appeal, and does not deny job-hunting.
Fed up with the board’s recent antics, which included stripping Metts’ power to sign contracts worth more than $5,000 and firing her without notice, the delegation rushed the bill to the General Assembly this week. If passed, it will take effect as soon as Gov. Parris N. Glendening signs it.
Glendening supports the bill, saying the board has created a “circus-like” atmosphere.
The relationship between the board and superintendent has evolved into a “careening, purposeless aggression,” said County Executive Wayne Curry, who supports the bill.
“We need to stop what appears to be an unstoppable meltdown,” he said.
Only County Councilman Isaac J. Gourdine spoke against the bill. He said the crisis is that state legislators won’t support the board’s right to fire the superintendent.
“This is not a crisis of education, it is a crisis of politics,” he said.
He accused lawmakers of “climbing the political ladder on the backs of children,” a line possibly directed at Baker, who is running against Gourdine for county executive.
Baker said he was offended only that “he showed up.”
The measure also weakens voting power, Gourdine said, echoing several community activists who have opposed plans to restructure the board with appointments. The emergency bill is objectionable, Gourdine said, because it transfers power from elected board members to appointed panel members.
“This is disenfranchisement through the back door,” he said.
The situation has gotten so bad it requires drastic measures, Baker said, adding that he is acting not just as a politician but as a parent.
“Politics be damned,” he said. “The house is on fire. There is no politically correct way to escape a burning building.”
While the temporary emergency measure moves through the House, Baker has been working with senators and members of his delegation to craft a longer-term solution palatable to both chambers. Baker wants early Senate support for his plan because previous restructuring attempts died in the Senate.
He now has support for a bill to create a board with five elected and four appointed members, a stronger version of an agreement he reached last week with Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, that called for three appointees.
The drama of the past week fueled support for appointed board members, delegates said.
“I believe we have a majority on board for a 5-4 plan,” said delegation vice chairwoman Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s.
The proposal is evolving and has not been formally reviewed by the delegation. It calls for an appointed chief financial officer and requires that some appointed board members have expertise in education and running a large business. It provides for a referendum after four years to keep the hybrid system or return to an all-elected board.
It also ties the changes to an immediate $30 million boost in state funding and calls for increasing amounts of money every year until the recommendations of the so-called Thornton Commission are fully funded. That panel recommended Prince George’s County get $305 million over the next five years to bring it in line with more affluent school districts.
The extra money is not available in a tight budget year, said House Appropriations Chairman Howard K. “Pete” Rawlings, D-Baltimore. Glendening has not committed to extra money either, but said he will consider it as part of an effective restructuring plan.
The Senate could amend a House bill to increase the number of appointed members, a move Baker said would not surprise him. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said he wants an all-appointed board and that a majority in the Senate delegation agrees with him. Miller also represents Prince George’s County.
It’s up to the House to initiate the restructuring bill, Miller said. And disagreements between the House and Senate on the finer issues won’t kill it, he added.
“A bill is going to pass,” Miller said. “The consensus is change.”