- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Prince George's County lawmakers voted yesterday to support legislation to restructure the county school board, making four of the nine members appointed rather than elected.

Restructuring will stabilize the board and restore residents' confidence in the school system, said Delegate Rushern L. Baker III, Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the county delegation.

The measure, which passed 13-6, will now be taken up by the House Ways and Means Committee.

The school system has been thrust into turmoil in recent months by an ongoing spat between the board and the superintendent, Iris T. Metts. The board fired Mrs. Metts on Feb. 2, but her firing was later overruled by the state Board of Education.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Metts sent a letter to school board Chairman Kenneth E. Johnson offering "an olive branch," and pledging to try to work with the school board. Mr. Johnson had led the effort to fire her last month.

Asked yesterday about the proposal to restructure the board, Mr. Johnson said that lawmakers would pay a price at elections this fall for taking the vote away from county residents.

The county board has until March 13 to appeal the state board's overruling of Mrs. Metts' dismissal. Mr. Johnson said the board would file an appeal, though he is not certain when.

The county school board is currently made up of nine elected members. Under the proposal, the county would be divided into five districts that would each elect one board member. Four other board members, including the chairman, would be jointly appointed by the governor and the county executive.

The bill requires that at least one of the appointed members have extensive administrative experience in business, one in government budget expertise and one in education expertise.

The bill also provides for the establishment of a chief financial officer for the school system, who would be responsible for the day-to-day management and oversight of fiscal affairs. The board would select the CFO, and establish the salary for the position.

In 2006, the county would hold a referendum to determine if voters want to keep the board in this restructured format.

"I think this bill does everything the citizens of Prince George's County want and need," Mr. Baker said.

Delegate Joan Pitkin, Prince George's Democrat, opposed the bill, saying that restructuring the board undermines its role as "the voice of the constituents."

Delegate Joanne C. Benson, Prince George's Democrat, also opposed the legislation.

"We can restructure and restructure and restructure," she said, but the bill does not address what she said is the real problem: insufficient funding.

"We need not get caught up in personalities, who we like and who we dislike," Mrs. Benson said.

Mr. Baker counters that General Assembly lawmakers will have more confidence in the school system if it is restructured, and therefore, will be more likely to grant additional funding. The bill requests more funding, but does not mandate it.

Last month, an emergency measure to establish a five-member panel with veto power over major personnel decisions and expenditures by the school board quickly passed the House, but stalled in the Senate.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George's Democrat, said the county's senators agreed to hold off on that measure until the restructuring bill came through. Events, such as the state board's overturning of Mrs. Metts' dismissal, made the legislation less urgent, he said.

Mr. Pinsky said the county's senators will take up the restructuring measure "as soon as it comes into our possession." However, he conceded that there is a lack of consensus on what to do.

The Prince George's school system, with 133,00 students,is also the second poorest-performing district, ahead of only Baltimore city in test scores.

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