- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2002

Prince George's County's school superintendent and the school board that tried to fire her two weeks ago are still locked in legal combat. Now, one school board member wants another to be charged with assault for throwing a stack of papers at her during their meeting on Wednesday.
Also, the county's crime rate is up but bringing it down hasn't been easy with the state's attorney and the police chief fighting each other.
Meanwhile, candidates are getting ready to wage war for the soon-to-be-vacant county executive seat and seven spots on the County Council.
The dust-ups are numerous even for the bare-knuckled arena of Prince George's politics.
Nonetheless, Delegate Dereck Davis, Prince George's County Democrat, says it isn't chaos.
"Transition is the proper word, and that's normal at the end of an administration," Mr. Davis said.
Mr. Davis is among a majority of the county's state lawmakers trying to strip the current school board's power by creating a committee that could veto its decisions.
So is Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. , who wants to replace the elected school board, at least for a few years, with an appointed one.
But Mr. Miller, a Democrat and a Prince George's County native, said the problems go beyond politics. He said the county, which experienced white flight decades ago, now is seeing some middle-class and affluent black residents leave.
"If we can solve the education and public safety problems" the county will be on track, he said.
Confidence in county schools that are ranked next to worst in the state faltered as Superintendent Iris T. Metts failed to improve student test scores and feuded with the school board over bonuses for her deputies and where she should sit at meetings.
Some residents are unsure what to make of a rise in violent crime and reports of police brutality.
Speculation had swirled for months that Police Chief John S. Farrell would resign.
He was expected to leave this year because term limits prohibit County Executive Wayne K. Curry, who hired him in 1995, from running for re-election.
But Chief Farrell's announcement on Feb. 12 that he would leave the post March 1 seemed sudden to some. It came just a day after he reassigned nearly 160 detectives and ranking officers to patrol the county's most dangerous neighborhoods for three months.
With his announcement, the chief said the county had a "serious problem" with violent crime something he had been reluctant to acknowledge.
The next chief needs to have the confidence of rank-and-file police, Mr. Miller and other leaders said.
"It's a dangerous job, it can be a thankless job. When they stop somebody, they don't know what's going to happen. … With the morale problem, they're not making arrests they need to," Mr. Miller said.
Although the school board and Mrs. Metts sat together at a budget work session on Wednesday night, it was clear that the superintendent and the faction that voted 6-3 to fire her on Feb. 2 were not smoking the peace pipe.
This week, school board member Angie Como of Laurel, one of Mrs. Metts' strongest critics, tried to file assault charges against board member Doyle Niemann of Mount Rainier, a Metts supporter.
Mrs. Como said Mr. Niemann flung a stack of papers across a table at her during a student appeals committee meeting.
The flying pile sent plastic foam cups tumbling toward other board members and the papers into Mrs. Como's lap.
"I was shaking. … He glared angrily at me across the table as if he was going to hit me," she said.
Mr. Niemann, a prosecutor, said it was an accident.
"The table has a slick surface and the papers just went across the table and landed on her," he said, adding that Mrs. Como is "paranoid when it comes to me. … This is a continuation of the war on Dr. Metts."
Mrs. Como filed charges with a county police commissioner, but said she was told there wasn't enough evidence for a criminal charge. She said she intended to bring the matter to State's Attorney Jack Johnson, Mr. Niemann's boss.
Mr. Johnson is running for county executive and has built his campaign around his criticism of county police.
Soon Mr. Johnson won't be able to agitate Chief Farrell with claims that police blunders or misconduct prevent him from prosecuting cases, but the county school board and Mrs. Metts are stuck with each other for a while.
On Feb. 11, the Maryland State Board of Education ruled that the county school board couldn't fire her without the approval of state Superintendent Nancy L. Grasmick, an ally who knew Mrs. Metts when Mrs. Metts was Delaware's state superintendent.
The decision alarmed the Prince George's board, as well as others around the state.
County school board Chairman Kenneth E. Johnson said the board is "professional" and will work with Mrs. Metts as long as she remains superintendent, but civility has been strained.
At their meeting this week, Mrs. Metts criticized board members' arguments on issues. At the budget session on Thursday, she told the board it was "not a good time" for her to solicit money from businesses because of the "instability of the superintendent's position."
At a College Park shopping center on Friday, June Rascoe of Upper Marlboro said Mrs. Metts and the board needed to put their egos aside and put the students' first.
"If they don't work together, the [state] government takes over and they'll make whatever rules they want, and that won't be fair to the kids. They're at the bottom with no vote," Miss Rascoe said.
Amid all the turmoil, Governing magazine this month released a report that awarded Prince George's a B- grade for performance among on the nation's large counties.
"When it comes to management, Prince George's does a somewhat better job than its unfortunate public image would suggest," the magazine said, acknowledging school and police tensions, and the fact that it has "fewer resources" than wealthier neighbors such as Montgomery County, which rated a B+, Anne Arundel County with a C, and Fairfax County with an A.
But there's room for improvement and a danger that perception can become reality, said Sen. Gloria Lawlah, Prince George's Democrat.
"My constituents are not satisfied with the way schools are going They are embarrassed," Mrs. Lawlah said. "We don't want to be the ugly sister."


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