- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2001

The deadline for three high-level Prince George's County, Md., school administrators to return $35,000 in unauthorized bonuses came and went with little action, although school board members say they expect the money to be repaid eventually.

"We are working on this issue now and expect a resolution soon," said one board member who declined to be named. "But no one should think we are backing off this issue. We want that money back."

The deadline for the return of the money was Sunday.

Other board members expressed concern about a preliminary plan by Superintendent Iris T. Metts to rescind the bonuses but return the money through raises.

"I won't go for a plan that gives those three more [money] than other employees," said one board member privately. "It wouldn't be fair since they haven't been here that long. We also have to spread the wealth around."

The Dec. 31 deadline was set by the school board in a Sept. 28 resolution directing Mrs. Metts to retrieve bonuses from three of her current deputies and one who has since resigned. Mrs. Metts authorized the bonuses in 1999 contracts the board voided in August.

The October resolution also directed the money to be repaid by Dec. 31 and for a plan of repayment to be approved by Oct. 26. If no plan was agreed to, the resolution also directed board attorney Andrew Nussbaum to take whatever legal action necessary to recover the funds.

After the October deadline passed with no plan in place, Mr. Nussbaum sent a letter to the deputies' attorney requesting that the money be returned by Dec. 31, board members confirmed.

Many county and state officials hope the matter will be resolved peacefully but are bracing for a fight.

"This is a true test for the board, especially as the [state legislature] is getting ready to go into session and look at remaking the body," said Doug Peters, a member of the Management Oversight Panel, a state-appointed body that is charged with overseeing school reform. "We have stressed mediation, but if this goes into a full-blown lawsuit, things are going to get ugly."

Shortly after Mrs. Metts arrived in June 1999, she assembled a team of former colleagues and presented her proposals to the board.

The board, in August 1999, approved the hires and salaries of Deputy Superintendent Frank Rishel at a salary of $130,000; Suellen Harris, associate superintendent for instruction, also $130,000; Ken Brown, associate superintendent for finance and budget, $106,000; and Alberta L. Paul, the chief information officer who resigned in September, also $106,000.

The next day, Mrs. Metts signed contracts with each that approved the bonuses $15,000 to Mr. Rishel and $10,000 each to the other three. Each also received a $5,000 car allowance.

In August, Mrs. Metts produced the contracts after a report by The Washington Times revealed that the bonuses had been paid in June. Board members said they didn't know any contracts existed and voted to rescind them.

In September, the current deputies hired a lawyer from Delaware to force the school system to reinstate their pay bonuses.

"The Board is obligated to comply with all the terms of the agreements [Mrs.] Metts negotiated on behalf of the Board, and upon which our clients relied in giving up their jobs in Delaware, moving to Maryland and entering leases for housing," lawyer David Williams said in an Aug. 25 letter to the school board.

Mr. Williams didn't return calls seeking comment. Mr. Rishel, Mrs. Harris, Mr. Brown and Mrs. Metts declined comment through a schools spokesman.

School board attorney Andrew Nussbaum declined comment, citing personnel issues.

School board members who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the board still supports rescinding the bonuses and believes the issue could be resolved with a preliminary plan presented by the superintendent.

The plan rescinds the bonuses but provides for hefty raises for the three deputies that would essentially leave little money changing hands, school sources said. The plan is still under discussion and includes lesser amounts for other high-level staff.

Others called the plan a "sleight of hand" and expressed fury that the board was put into its current position.

Mrs. Metts "has boxed us in," said one board member. "She gave them that money, and they believed it was authorized. She had no intention of ever telling us. Then by righting a wrong, we end up putting the school system at risk of getting sued or getting sued by our top staff or both."

As for Miss Paul, the administrator who resigned, most board members admitted they didn't know how to deal with that situation. "The general consensus seems to be," as one board member put it, "let sleeping dogs lie."

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