- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Takeover. Control board. Restructuring. The buzz words connected with Prince George's County, Md., schools these days inevitably hint at changes big changes.

In Annapolis, state lawmakers are fed up with the Prince George's County school board, and the county delegation is leading the effort to replace the current board with a hybrid that adds four appointed members.

"[The school system] thinks this is a joke, but this is no joke," said Delegate James Hubbard, Prince George's Democrat. "We are willing to clean house. If we don't do something now, we will doom the system."

Lawmakers have also proposed strengthening the powers of the state-appointed Management Oversight Panel and adding a task force to oversee reform.

They say they are not afraid to do what needs to be done.

That wasn't always the case. In November 1998, legislators backed down from plans to take over the Prince George's County school board amid outcry by angry parents.

Some of those same residents who fought the takeover then are now eagerly welcoming state intervention.

Here's why: In the past year, residents have been treated to board members bickering with the superintendent and each other on everything from spending habits to media leaks. A damaging expense audit and a chiding report from an ethics panel fueled questions about board members' fiscal irresponsibility. And, after being cited for violating the state's open meetings act, the board now wants to restrict the public commentary portion of meetings.

Residents say they have had enough.

"This board is just so bad," said Donna Hathaway Beck, a parent and school activist. "There is very little education policy being made. It's time for a change."

Board members defend themselves, saying they have revamped the school board's ethics panel and reformed expense account policies.

"We are the favorite scapegoat of other elected officials," one board member said privately. "They need to look at what they are doing to help the schools. They certainly aren't doing much when it comes to full funding."

Superintendent Iris T. Metts, hired in the summer of 1999, has also been targeted by critics. She angered her own board last year when she distributed bonuses to top staffers who came with her from Delaware. And she was criticized when she cut 90 schools' funding three weeks before the start of school.

She has contributed to the exodus of experienced teachers and administrators, critics say, and does not solicit input from the community on her ideas.

"We have been completely cut out of the process," said Deborah Stover-Springer, a parent-activist in Laurel. "I am an involved parent and I would think [school officials] would want to get us on their side. But they aren't interested in our participation unless it is to make cookies for a school sale or costumes for a play."

Mrs. Metts describes herself as a "change agent" for the 133,000-student system and admits she failed to communicate her plans effectively. Popularity, though, isn't important to her, she said. Turning the system around is.

"No one likes change," Mrs. Metts said. "It is slower than I would like, but we are moving forward on a few fronts."

She cites as successes the implementation of full-day kindergarten; the creation of high school academies; new summer and after-school programs; teacher raises; and millions in new funding from the county and state last year.

"It is my mission to provide high-quality programs in the schools," she said.

Her critics point to falling test scores, a second-to-last ranking on state exams and four more schools recently added to the state's reconstitution-eligible list.

State lawmakers have been down this road before. More than two years ago, the General Assembly created a Management Oversight Panel (MOP) to oversee education reform in Prince George's County.

Since then, the panel has been largely ineffectual, but some lawmakers say giving the MOP new members and new powers might help.

That prospect the specter of even more state control is the first thing in two years to unite the county's constantly feuding parents, unions, school board members and superintendent.

During a hearing in Annapolis two weeks ago, Kenneth Johnson, chairman of the embattled school board, promised he would quit if the state steps in. Mrs. Metts hinted at the same thing.

And while many residents want change, they say empowering the MOP isn't the answer.

"These people [the MOP] are completely out of the loop," Mrs. Beck said. "They meet once a month, and even then, most of them don't bother to show up."

But MOP members, who are appointed by the governor, the county executive and Mr. Johnson, say they don't have the tools needed to do the job.

MOP Chairman Artis Hampshire Cowan told legislators that panel members initially were eager to help. "Unfortunately, that early enthusiasm has changed to frustration and disappointment," she said. Because the panel has no power to force the system to keep the panel informed or to cooperate with it, she said, the body has been "effectively neutralized."

On. Feb. 1, the House Appropriations Committee hearing on Prince George's schools started on a positive note: The state schools superintendent told legislators that auditors had given the school board a clean bill on its new expense account policies.

It slid downhill from there.

Legislators and the MOP upbraided Mrs. Metts for her performance and she fired right back.

"Is it fair to ask in one year for a superintendent to see dramatic growth in scores?" Mrs. Metts asked.

Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the committee, wasn't in the mood for excuses.

"This is a scheme superintendents use," he said. "They stay only two or three years and then say, 'You can't judge me.' But then they leave, and a new one comes in and says the same thing."

Mr. Johnson, the board chairman, testified that his "inner man" is tortured because of the financial shortages the school system faces.

"If your inner man is with you right now," Mr. Rawlings replied, he would realize that legislators were stingy because of board mismanagement.

When Mr. Rawlings pressed Mr. Johnson to repay $119 charged to the district for alcohol served at a school board function, Mr. Johnson blew up.

Mr. Johnson whipped out $119 and slammed it down. If he repaid the money, he asked, "Can we put this issue behind us and get to the real issue, fully funding our [school] budget?"

If the legislature clips the wings of the Prince George's County school board in the next few days, blame it on that contentious hearing, say several members of the county's delegation of state lawmakers.

Delegate James Hubbard, Prince George's Democrat, has two bills under discussion this week: One calls for an appointed board, the other a board that combines districts and adds at-large members. He is expected to call for the creation of a task force to monitor reform that includes lawmakers. Delegation Chairman Rushern L. Baker III, Prince George's Democrat, wants to add powers to the MOP.

Before the session ends, delegates say, the legislature will likely approve a reconfigured school board, made up of both appointed and elected members, that answers to a rejuvenated MOP.

Prince George's County school board members, meanwhile, say they're being sacrificed to appease Mr. Rawlings, who they say resents the county for its failure to support new funding for Baltimore schools a few years ago.

Mr. Rawlings holds the key to the state money the county needs to build schools and hire qualified teachers and he's made it clear Prince George's must demonstrate accountability first.

"We have to move the system forward," Mr. Baker said. "If we don't, the state is going to do it for us."

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