- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 30, 2002

State legislators from Prince George's County are scrambling to save state school aid as budget leaders warn that three years of declining test scores and paralyzing clashes between the school board and superintendent could mean funds are withheld.
Senators from Prince George's are working with their counterparts in the House to develop legislation that would change the structure of the school board and tie funding to those changes, said Sen. Arthur Dorman, a Democrat whose district includes Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
"The continued decline of scores just gives everybody involved more reason to make drastic changes," Mr. Dorman said.
Although county lawmakers are still working to build a consensus on details, the proposal will likely recommend reducing the number of school board districts from nine to six and making three slots on the board appointed positions.
Some want the three appointees to be experts in specific fields who could provide stability to the board as it changes, they hope, from a panel continually deadlocked in power struggles with the superintendent.
But lawmakers, particularly in an election year, are uneasy about taking any power away from voters.
"The foot-in-mouth disease of the board is making more people jumpy we've got to take the politics and posturing out of it," said Senate delegation chairman Paul Pinsky, a Democrat.
The bill is expected to include provisions that would eventually change the appointed positions back to elected ones.
Delegate Dereck Davis said something needs to be done to curb parochial divisions and recruit more qualified candidates.
"I don't think most are so satisfied that they don't see a reason or a need for change," said Mr. Davis, a Democrat. "If something doesn't happen this year, it's not going to happen for the foreseeable future."
The proposal may also call for a chief financial officer who reports to the state as well as to local officials and for authorizing the hiring of an interim superintendent, said Delegate James W. Hubbard.
The actions of the county delegation come as House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat, issued a statement Monday night warning that the impasse between Superintendent Iris T. Metts and the board must be resolved.
"I am more convinced than ever that the structure of the Board of Education must be changed in order for the school system to improve," Mr. Rawlings said in a one-page statement. "I have urged members of the Prince George's County delegation to support legislation to restructure the board this year."
Mr. Rawlings said he was "wary" of providing additional state aid to a system that had failed to make significant improvements in student performance for three consecutive years and a board that did not cooperate with the superintendent. He added he would "take whatever actions are necessary and appropriate" to ensure that state funds for public education in Prince George's and elsewhere were well-spent.
Prince George's schools are slated to get $33 million in extra state aid for education this year and would have gotten another $41.5 million under the recommendations of the blue-ribbon Thornton Commission, which the governor did not include in his budget.
County school administrators stress the need for more funds.
While releasing scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests Monday, Mrs. Metts said Prince George's which is the state's second-lowest-performing school system next to Baltimore had not received any additional funding.
"Baltimore city got $250 million, but we didn't get any. It is hampering our reform efforts," she said.
Board Chairman Kenneth E. Johnson said withholding funds from the county was not a solution to any of its problems.
"We are trying to provide more educational tools, but Prince George's doesn't have enough money to do what we have to do," he said.
Related bills were bogged down in committee last week.
Three of the seven bills introduced in the House this year to restructure the county school board were killed at a committee meeting of the Prince George's County delegation County Affairs Committee last week. Four others were reserved for later discussion.
Lawmakers had planned an overhaul of the board during last year's General Assembly session, but legislation was put on hold until after the county's legislative map was being redrawn in redistricting.
A push to change the school board was revived this session after a bitter dispute between the superintendent and the board over bonuses Mrs. Metts awarded to four of her top deputies.
Tensions flared again last week when the board forbade Mrs. Metts from signing any contracts of more than $5,000, after learning she had signed four agreements worth $1.9 million for the county's Head Start program without board approval. State lawmakers criticized the move and said it would negatively reflect on the board when they considered the restructuring proposals.
Mr. Johnson yesterday said the board had reached an agreement with Mrs. Metts about which contracts she could and could not sign. He said the board's lawyer had sent Mrs. Metts a letter that clarified she could sign contracts for day-to-day board operations, like buying paper for the copiers or finding appropriate schools for special-education students.

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