- The Washington Times - Monday, April 8, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Much of the important work of the 2002 legislative session is out of the way as lawmakers report for the final day, but enough issues are hanging in the balance to keep them busy right up to the midnight adjournment deadline.
Chief among the tough issues settled were a major increase in state school aid and passage of the state budget, which was complicated this year because the economic downturn left Maryland with diminished revenues.
"We are very much ahead of schedule," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Saturday after the education bill received final approval. As for today, he predicts a lot of "stops and starts" with legislation bouncing back and forth between the two chambers as lawmakers on both sides give their final nods of approval.
One bit of unfinished business is a bill awaiting final action that would reconstitute the Prince George's County school board. The Senate passed legislation last week to replace the embattled board with nine appointees picked jointly by the governor and the county executive.
Some lawmakers had argued passionately against the measure, saying it would disenfranchise county residents of their right to vote for board members. Others had sought a new board made up of a mix of appointees and elected members.
The details are being worked out in a conference committee.
The proposal may leave county schools with new members who don't know enough about ongoing, complex issues to be able to govern, schools officials said.
School board members on both sides of the fight over whether to replace Superintendent Iris T. Metts say they fear a new board will have trouble diving into a $1 billion budget that has to be reconciled by June 30. The board also will have to restructure a magnet school program this summer and staff seven new schools by the end of August.
"It's going to be a mess," said Doris Reed, executive director of the union representing Prince George's principals. "I don't care who they think they're going to get. They're not going to come in and hit the ground running and know what the county needs."
The plan under consideration by state lawmakers calls for the nine-member elected school board to be replaced by a panel appointed by the county executive and the governor. The fate of Mrs. Metts and her financial chief and head of administration would be up to the new board.
Legislators say the board has to be replaced because the current members are too fractious. The board tried to fire Mrs. Metts earlier this year, but the State Board of Education halted their action.
The legislative action has brought consensus among the school board members who soon would leave their posts.
"Who is going to reconcile the budget? These people won't have the knowledge to do it," said board member Robert Callahan, who voted to fire Mrs. Metts. "It sounds like the legislature is doing this without regard of the day-to-day operations of the school district."
Some county residents say they are worried about the uncertain future of the 134,000-student school district, which consistently ranks second to last on state tests.
"What direction does the school system go in next year?" asked Judy Mickens-Murray, president of the Prince George's County Council of PTAs. "If you continue to have musical chairs on top, there is no one with institutional knowledge or vision to make sure that change is really implemented."
State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky said enough staff members would remain in the school system to guide new board members. The county executive and the governor would choose people with enough financial expertise to handle the budget, he said.
"Some of the members of the board, even though they've been on there for a few years, don't seem like they comprehend what's going on," he said.
The new board would have to approve a new budget by June 30. Mrs. Metts and the school board proposed a $1.14 billion plan, but county officials have said it is about $100 million too high.
A new board also would start their jobs in the middle of an ambitious overhaul of the school district's payroll system and a plan to save several schools from state takeover.
Also, the district is preparing to return to court and try to extend a court-ordered memorandum of understanding that ended a decades-long desegregation lawsuit. Also unresolved is a magnet school expansion plan required by the court order.

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