- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2002

The Prince George's County, Md., school board has stripped Superintendent Iris T. Metts of the authority to sign contracts above $5,000 without its approval.

The emergency resolution, moved by six board members on Thursday night, passed on a 5-3 vote. Member Felicia Lasley, District 7, who helped moved the resolution, abstained from the vote. The resolution was prompted after Mrs. Metts signed four lease agreements worth $1.9 million for the county's Head Start program, without getting board approval.

"No other superintendents before her have entered into contracts without board approval," said board Chairman Kenneth E. Johnson, District 6.

"The state law is very clear that she needs board approval. … We are clarifying because she was not clear about it," he said.

A visibly upset Mrs. Metts warned against passing the resolution. "You have no knowledge of the number of contracts that we need to expedite. You will literally bring the system to a halt," she said.

The resolution means children will not be served and programs in the schools will not go on, she said. "I want the public to know this because I don't want the superintendent blamed later."

State lawmakers agree that the board has the fiduciary responsibility to make such a move but said it reflects poorly on them.

"I am flabbergasted," said Delegate Rushern Baker, Prince George's Democrat and leader of the county's state delegation. "This is like trying to hamstring the head of a billion-dollar corporation with a $5,000 contract. She cannot even order paper now without board approval."

He added the move would weigh on lawmakers when they considered several bills introduced in the Maryland General Assembly this session to restructure the Prince George's County school board. "It is a further indication of how incompetent this board is."

Board member Robert J. Callahan, District 5, who voted for the resolution, said he believes Mrs. Metts had abused her authority in the past, such as when she applied for grant money for magnet schools without board approval, and planned the military academy at Forestville High. But he said $5,000 seemed a little low.

"It should have been $50,000 or $25,000," he said.

State lawmakers said the board was within its rights, but Delegate James W. Hubbard, Prince George's Democrat, said the move was "an effort on their behalf to try and frustrate the system."

"There are thousands of contracts that are worth $5,000 and above in the school system. This will delay contracts that need to be done expeditiously," he said.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, Prince George's Democrat, said, "This is another example of the board micromanaging day-to-day operations. … The only people who will suffer because of this are the county's 130,000 students."

Board members Doyle Niemann, District 3, and Cathy Smith, District 4, voted against the resolution, along with Bernard E. Phifer, District 8, as being "absurd" and "outrageous."

"This is ill-advised and will only cripple the school system," Mr. Niemann said.

The board approves each contract over two meetings and would have to meet "every day" to approve the hundreds of contracts that are part of running the school system, he said.

In closed session after Tuesday night's meeting the board decided to send letters to five churches contracted to provide space for Head Start classes and ask them not to use the money. "The contract was not valid. It should have been approved by the board," a member said.

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