- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2000

Prince George's County (Md.) schools Superintendent Iris T. Metts was expected Thursday to announce revisions to school budgets, but instead defended last week's severe cuts, which have been widely criticized.

"We looked at the impact of poverty on our schools," Mrs. Metts said. "The achievement in the district must be improved and it must begin with those most in need. At that point, we must look at those to see if we fairly allocate resources. We haven't. That is why we had to rethink the distribution of funds."

At issue is the Comprehensive School Improvement fund, supplemental money disbursed to individual schools to pay for additional staff, textbooks and supplies.

This year, the superintendent cut the fund from $24 million to $20 million to divert the money to teachers' raises and full-day kindergarten. As a result, half of Prince George's County's 180 schools lost anywhere from $3,000 to $150,000 in supplemental funds one month before school starts. The other schools gained by that much, The Washington Times reported last week.

Mrs. Metts defended the timing of the cuts by saying they came late because the budget process finished June 30. She also said she alone was not responsible for the cuts, part of a $60 million shortfall in the budget that had to come from somewhere.

"I do not feel like I am acting alone here," she said. "The policy decision [for the cuts] was set by the board. The board agreed to take away $4 million. Somehow that should translate into different schools receiving less.

"I wish we could have timed this another way, but it's not easy anytime," she added.

Mrs. Metts promised that no teachers would lose their jobs and no schools would have their class sizes expanded as a result of the cuts.

Mrs. Metts said she regretted not having an opportunity to address the cuts with advisory groups and administrators before they were reported in the media.

"It is the usual mode of not letting me explain first," she said. As for giving educators a warning about the cuts earlier this year, she said it was "not something she would discuss with principals."

Many state and school officials, as well as parents, expressed disappointment at Mrs. Metts' refusal to revise the budgets.

"It shows a lack of concern about the turmoil going on in the schools receiving these cuts," said school board member Angie Como, District 1. "The people of this county need to be treated with respect and concern. And her statements today just show that these cuts were not preliminary when they were released last week."

Mrs. Como had introduced a motion at Thursday night's school board meeting asking the administration to delay implementing any cuts for one year, but the motion failed 2-6.

"As I said before, reckless and irresponsible," said Donna Hathaway Beck, a parent and activist in the county. "The timing was disastrous. And it is clear that the board was not aware of what was going to happen."

Other board members said they felt the formula needed to be changed and expressed support for Mrs. Metts. "The board agreed to the $4 million cut," said board member Cathy Smith, District 4.

"It's a difficult and hard decision, and some aren't happy. But I support Dr. Metts. I will keep an open mind," she said.

Delegate Carolyn J.B. Howard, Prince George's Democrat, said she supported the cuts. "The way it has been done in the past was inequitable and excluded the African-American schools."

But parents and educators of losing schools didn't find the administration's explanations satisfactory. At least 200 persons packed last night's school board meeting, and 78 persons including state legislators signed up to speak, although only 38 had a chance to do so.

"I have grave concerns, said Delegate James Hubbard, Prince George's Democrat. "These cuts were made in a vacuum. The time frame of these cuts, intentional or not, are setting up a socio-economic divide.

"I am asking you to reconsider the policy," Mr. Hubbard said.

Steven Barish, parent of a student at Rockledge Elementary in Bowie, said, "Imagine yourself a principal of any of the schools whose budgets were cut $150,000 to $200,000. Can any of you honestly say that you could maintain the quality of service with one month's notice? What can be the justification for hurting children?

"Does it make sense to bring equity to the school system by tearing down the infrastructure of the best-performing schools? We would hate to take legal action against the people who administer our schools, but we are prepared to do so."

Some speakers, however, praised the budgets.

Shara Hammond, a student at Forestville High School, thanked the administration for what it has done. "It's long overdue," she said of the money. "This is showing all students in Forestville an equal-education opportunity."

While many school budgets have been cut, top administrators have been richly rewarded. School sources said Thursday that Mrs. Metts' top deputies Frank Rishel, Sue Ellen Harris, Ken Brown and Alberta Paul all received bonuses last month unbeknownst to board members. Mr. Rishel received $30,000 and the others received $20,000 each.

The administration refused to confirm the bonuses, except to say in a written statement that the board approved a 1 and 1/2 percent scale increase for the top-level staff before Mrs. Metts arrived last summer. The increase went into effect July 1.

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