- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2002

School systems in our nation began in colonial America, in a truly local way, by the efforts of local churches, councils and individuals. This approach developed into a governance structure, predating the creation of the U.S. government or the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Governance of our school systems was premised on an important philosophical viewpoint local control of education.

The view that schooling is a local responsibility was ingrained by the time state governments and the United States government were formally established. When state constitutions were established, it was expected that the existing system of local control would be ongoing.

A vast majority of local boards in the nation are elected, and there is a growing trend in Maryland to move away from appointed boards. Elected boards are accountable to the public since they face election for each term of service. Representative government is a foundation of this nation. Appointed boards are basically accountable to no one. They are political appointees and can be removed at will. Boards are elected in Allegany, Calvert, Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Garrett, Howard, Kent, Montgomery, Prince George's, St. Mary's, Somerset, and Washington counties. The remaining counties are appointed by the governor. In Baltimore, members are jointly appointed by the city's mayor and the governor.

The Maryland General Assembly has decided to go against the trend and take a step backwards in democracy. It has passed emergency legislation that will effectively strip the local school in Prince George's County of its authority over the school system and replace it with an appointed oversight panel. This ill-conceived legislation had been stalled in the Senate, so Delegate Howard Rawlings threatened to withhold funds due the school district. Six of the nine current elected board members and three of the nine County Council members oppose this legislation. The impetus for this emergency measure comes from the firing of Superintendent Iris T. Metts by the local board. The local board took the action based on a provision in the current contract with the superintendent that provides for unilateral termination of the superintendent with 45 days notice and two months pay. The board believes this is a valid legal contract since it was agreed to and signed by the local board and its superintendent, and was ratified by the state superintendent, Nancy Grasmick. If there was a conflict with the state law, then it should have been pointed out before it was ratified by the state. Maryland state law provides that contracts are for four years, but is silent on early on provisions. The Prince George's contract was for four years.

One matter that has not come out in the debate over the superintendent's contract is the fact that Iris T. Metts was not qualified to be a superintendent in Maryland when she came to Prince George's County from Delaware two-and-a-half years ago. She was short three credits in special education, and Mrs. Grasmick waived that requirement. No teacher or other administrator would receive such a waiver. The overturning of the local board's firing and the waiver of certification are excellent arguments against an appointed board. The state board makes up the rules as they go along.

The Maryland General Assembly is uninformed of the business of the Prince George's County School Board. Their actions in this matter can only be described as political chicanery. This is an election year, and suddenly every politician is an expert in education. These politicians rarely or never attend the local school board meetings or discuss issues with the individual board members, and during the 90 days they are in Annapolis, they are isolated from their constituents. They are unaware of the problems we are having with the local superintendent, and the dissatisfaction we have with the lack of progress under her leadership, and her plain and simple incompetence. Perhaps they are not aware that we have the second-lowest test scores in the state and that they have dropped further each year under this superintendent, despite her promises to raise them six points per year. Perhaps they are unaware of the high turnover of top administrators, as well as principals and teachers due to actions of the superintendent, or that we have record numbers of employee grievances, many unresolved for two years now. Maybe they didn't hear about the disastrous budget reconciliations of the last two years, the inability to load budgets properly into the computer system, or the textbook shortages that left scores of students with no books for up to four months into the current school year.

Perhaps they overlooked the $10,000 and $15,000 bonuses granted without board knowledge or authority to a handful of top deputies who were friends of the superintendent and hired by her. Section 4 -10 (3) of the state's education article states that the appointment and salary of school system employees is to be done by the board, not the superintendent. These bonuses were never repaid, including one given to an executive who resigned amid allegations that she lied on her resume, and another who was out on two extended sick leave absences.

The real issue here is one of inalienable rights the right of the citizens to vote for elected representatives. The Maryland General Assembly, also an elected body, should not have the authority to take away the right to vote for an elected school board.

Local control has been the most permanent and fundamental component of our nation's educational structure, and has been well-respected and largely preserved for more than 225 years. The Maryland General Assembly and Gov. Parris Glendening should respect that foundation and abandon the foolishness they have created this election year.

Robert J. Callahan is a school board member for Maryland's fifth district.

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