- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2001

Members of a state-appointed panel overseeing Prince Georges County school reform asked the state schools superintendent to intervene in an increasingly bitter dispute over unauthorized bonuses given to three school deputies.
At issue is bonuses totaling $35,000 that Schools Superintendent Iris T. Metts gave three top deputies last year without board approval. The school board threatened to sue the deputies if they did not return the bonuses before Dec. 1. The deputies now have until Friday to decide whether or not to return the money.
In the letter sent to Nancy Grasmick yesterday, panel Chairman Artis Hampshire-Cowan said relations between the board and Mrs. Metts, and between the board and the deputies, have "deteriorated."
"The panel asks that [Mrs. Grasmick] and the State Board of Education become involved at this time to provide an independent voice capable of examining the disputed contract issues and hopefully prevent ill-timed leadership changes," the letter states.
"In particular, we ask that you direct the [school board] to delay any further action on these issues until you have had a chance to determine if there are any questions related to personnel or contract rights policy, or possible violations of state or local laws and regulations, that need to be addressed."
Sources said some state lawmakers also have expressed frustration with the dispute that has stretched out since last August and might interfere in bringing about a quick settlement.
"The board is trying to recoup the money, and I applaud them for it," said Sen. Paul Pinsky, Prince Georges Democrat. Mr. Pinsky is currently mediating between the board and the superintendent.
Sources said Mr. Pinsky offered Mrs. Metts a deal on behalf of the board that included her offering a public apology, removing her seat from the board dais and urging her deputies to return half the bonus money. Mrs. Metts will decide today whether to accept the compromise.
"I hope they dont leave and want them to continue, but the board cant make decisions because of threats. If [the deputies] believe in the system, they will stay and work with it," Mr. Pinsky said.
The state Senate delegation from Prince Georges yesterday said they will meet on Monday to decide how to deal with the increasingly unstable school system. This cant wait until the legislative session starts, they said.
But school board members who voted to sue the deputies said that the state has no role in the matter, and that the board is within its rights in asking Mrs. Metts to carry out its directive.
"There is nothing new here," said board member Robert Callahan. "Everybody just wants to put their two cents in. There is no crisis here."
Mrs. Grasmick was not available for comment yesterday, but Ron Pieffer, assistant superintendent of schools for Maryland, said the state superintendent is "deeply concerned" about what is happening in Prince Georges County. He said in the past she had often intervened "to work out difficult situations" in individual counties.
The oversight panels letter to Mrs. Grasmick is the latest in a series of skirmishes between the state-appointed panel and a majority of the county school board members who resent what they describe as the panels intrusion.
In a letter yesterday to Mrs. Hampshire-Cowan, school board Chairman Kenneth Johnson lashed out over the involvement of "too many politicians … in a matter that is between the Board of Education and its employee."
Mr. Johnson himself has been criticized for dragging out the matter, which some say is taking the focus off important issues such as the $100 million budget reconciliation.
The school board chairman refused to meet with Mrs. Cowan and Mrs. Metts on Wednesday, and offered 6 p.m. on Friday as the earliest possible time for a meeting, the same day the deputies have to respond to the boards demand.
The time offered by Mr. Johnson "will be too late to prevent irreversible Board action," Mrs. Hampshire-Cowan wrote in her letter.
Mrs. Metts and her deputies have threatened to resign over the dispute, and some county sources said the school system doesnt needed another upheaval. But most board members maintain that they must retrieve the bonuses on principle and force the superintendent, who maintains the bonuses are legitimate, to follow their directives.
Meanwhile, former board Chairman and District 2 board member James Henderson, broke his silence yesterday, confirming that Mrs. Metts conceded last August after he repeatedly questioned her privately that she never showed the contracts to the board.
Doris Reed, chief of the countys administrators union, said however that Mrs. Metts and her deputies would "not be missed."
"The board should send [Mrs. Metts] a letter today, asking her to get the money back from their next two paychecks. Or else, they should fire her," she said.
Mrs. Metts was not available for comment yesterday. A spokeswoman said the superintendent was withholding any further remarks until the deputies announce their decision Friday.
* Jabeen Bhatti contributed to this article.

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