ANNAPOLIS – Emergency legislation to hobble the Prince George’s County School Board in the wake of its unsuccessful firing of Superintendent Iris T. Metts passed the House of Delegates Thursday.
The bill would temporarily stabilize a system careening out of control, said county delegation leaders hoping to rush the bill to the governor for signing.
But opponents warn the bill disenfranchises voters who elected the board, sets a dangerous precedent and skirts the constitution.
The House passed the bill 94-29, with cheers from the Prince George’s corner of the room. The county delegation supported the bill 15-5.
“We have taken up the mantle of leadership,” said Delegation Chairman Rushern L. Baker, III, D-Prince George’s. “Emergency situations require emergency measures.”
The bill creates a five-member panel that can veto major personnel decisions and spending over $25,000. The panel would dissolve in December, after new board members take office.
The bill also prevents the board from choosing a permanent replacement for off-again, on-again Superintendent Metts, who recently has offered to resign, been fired, been reinstated, and was this week unfired by the State Board of Education. She says she is committed to the county, but does not deny job hunting.
“This assures there is not an opportunity for more mischief,” said Delegate Howard K. “Pete” Rawlings, D-Baltimore. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said the county’s primary problem is underfunding, but the current board can not be trusted with state money. “We are essentially protecting our investment.”
Debate on the House floor was at times loud and contentious.
Two Prince George’s delegates – Democrats Joanne Benson and David M. Valderrama – argued against the bill.
“This is a bad bill for citizens,” Benson shouted. “It sets a powerful precedent for your school board back home.”
The bill represents an unprecedented level of meddling in local affairs and should not be rubber-stamped by the House just because the county delegation requested it, said Delegate James F. Ports, R-Baltimore County.
“This tears at the very fabric of the electoral process and throws principle out the window for the sake of expediency,” Ports said. He pounded his desk, a rubber-stamping motion, before the vote.
Baker spoke last. He recalled failed efforts over the past three years at fixing the troubled board and said speed is critical.
“Every morning I gamble with my children’s lives. Every morning I make a political statement with their lives,” he said. “If you think for one minute, one second, one iota I will sit down and watch this system destroy itself, I won’t.”
The vote surpassed the required three-fifths majority by nine votes.
Twenty of the 29 opposing votes came from Republicans. State GOP Chairman Michael Steele said his party rejects the bill because it disenfranchises voters and takes away local control.
“It smacks the people of Prince George’s County square in the face and tells them they’re not competent enough to run the school board,” Steele said. He also questioned the constitutionality of a bill that transfers power of an elected body to an appointed one.
“I don’t know what part of the Constitution they are reading, certainly not the same one the rest of us are living under,” Steele said.
The attorney general’s office has said the bill is constitutional.
Republicans are just trying to get some press, said Delegation Vice Chairwoman Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s. “I think everyone here knows we did what we had to do,” she said. “We had a situation in our county out of control.”
The bill will be introduced in the Senate Friday, and will likely be heard by the county’s Senate delegation Tuesday, said its chairman Sen. Paul D. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s. In the quickest scenario, the upper chamber could vote in a week to 10 days.
Pinsky supports the bill, but said he will offer minor amendments.
“I’m concerned there could be further missteps and misdeeds,” he said. “Under unique circumstances you need to have unique action.”
The bill needs a three-fifths vote in the Senate to 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 House delegation is also considering separate, more lasting legislation to restructure the board with five elected and four appointed members. That bill has the support of the delegation leadership, and will come before a delegation subcommittee Wednesday.