- The Washington Times - Monday, August 26, 2002

Iris T. Metts is tired.
The head of Prince George's County schools had a hectic summer checking bus routes, hiring teachers and planning new programs as she prepared for the school year. She did take a weeklong break a Lake Tahoe trip that caused her a bit less worry than vacations she has taken in the past.
"I used to be afraid to go on vacation for fear the school board would lock me out of the building," she said with a wry smile.
It's a joke, but it isn't too far from the truth. For the first three years of her term as head of the county's schools, Mrs. Metts often sparred bitterly with the board. She was even fired by the board in the spring, a decision overturned after a county judge intervened.
That's over now. The board is gone, replaced by the Maryland General Assembly with a panel comprising nine appointed members. The bickering and discord have stopped. And Mrs. Metts, the former superintendent rehired by the new board, survived.
But as the school year starts, Mrs. Metts and the new board will have to demonstrate that state lawmakers did the right thing with the extraordinary step of replacing an elected board and, in effect, overruling county voters who put them in office.
"Because they were appointed and not elected by the residents, in the minds of some parents they have to prove themselves," said Howard Tutman, president of the Prince George's County Council of parent-teacher associations. "But we should at least give them the benefit of the doubt."
The challenges faced by the new board are many. Prince George's schools consistently rank near the bottom among Maryland counties in standardized test scores. Schools face overcrowding, and some parents are angry over limited access to magnet schools.
But the county schools have also made improvements in the past several years. Scores on the standardized Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills have risen, and nine new schools will open in the fall. New state aid from the Thornton Commission starts this year, and the system recently emerged from three decades of court-ordered desegregation. The Thornton Commission was appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening two years ago to recommend ways to reduce funding equities among school systems and ensure they have enough money to meet state achievement standards. The commission recommended a $1.1 billion funding increase for schools in the state over five years.
One of Mrs. Metts' pet projects, a new military-style academy complete with uniforms and drills, is also set to open this fall at a high school in Forestville.
The new board, which took office in July, has spent the summer learning how the school system works and trying to build trust among county residents. Board members have held a series of community "outreach" meetings, Vice Chairman Howard Stone said.
"We ask them questions and give them an overview of what is happening," he said. "I think that is important to show people we are about education."
Mrs. Metts and the new board get along relatively well, without the strife that marked her relationship with the old board, which had petty overtones. The board tried to block Mrs. Metts from awarding bonuses to her deputies and even forced her to change where she sat at board meetings.
After the elected board tried to fire her in February, state lawmakers, fed up with the strife, drafted a plan to reshape both the board and the superintendent's position. The proposal was passed by the General Assembly and took effect at the beginning of July.
But none of the appointed board members are from communities between Washington and the Capital Beltway a dividing line that separates the poorer parts of the county close to the city from the wealthier suburbs.
Residents who wanted a clean sweep of the system leadership grumbled when the new board hired Mrs. Metts as the temporary chief executive. A search is under way for a permanent head, and Mrs. Metts has applied for the job.
"I'm not sure there was a great deal of benefit for me to disappear at the beginning of the school year and have someone brand new come in and have to deal with all the problems we have," she said.
Some former board members feel they were the target of the changes made by the legislature, not Mrs. Metts.
"They didn't clean house. It was just a lot of lip service," Robert Callahan said. "Not only did they hire her back, but they gave her an 8 percent raise while teachers only got 5 percent."
But Mrs. Metts says she isn't gloating over what could be construed as a victory for her. The struggle took too much out of her and ultimately hurt more than just her pride, she said.
"Winning isn't the right thing to say. I lost a lot of ground; the system lost a lot of ground; and my talents weren't used effectively," she said. "We all lost; we all truly lost, so winning isn't the right word."

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