School reformer under fire

THE BALTIMORE SUN

UPPER MARLBORO - Forget the abysmal test scores, the principals fleeing for jobs in other counties, the computers that were older than most students. There was hope in Prince George's County a year ago when a new hero, Iris T. Metts, came to town.

Her appointment as superintendent was proclaimed as the solution to mismanagement so alarming that state legislators were withholding millions of dollars in education money from the county and threatening to take over its schools. Metts' arrival silenced them. They saw Delaware's former education secretary as the grand agent of change who would fire the right people, do the necessary restructuring and implement tough reforms to turn around the system.

A year into the Metts era, things aren't so rosy. Principals complain vociferously about her autocratic management style - for which she is unapologetic - and have said they've never seen such upheaval. The school board has clashed with her and last month angrily rejected an attempt to award her deputies - who came with her from Delaware - bonuses

In a private conversation with school board members before their most recent meeting, Metts threatened to quit. Sources say she was infuriated after members requested she stop sitting alongside them at meetings, and instead sit in the audience with her staff. It was a symbolic move the members hoped would tell the community that they are her bosses, not the other way around. After Metts' threat, the issue was dropped.

Observers universally agree they are impressed with some of Metts' reforms and say it's unfair to judge her after a year, but they don't agree on much more. Critics say her inability to win the support of principals and make change without drawing fire does not bode well. But supporters, many of them state legislators, say the radical changes Metts is putting in place are supposed to make the rank-and-file uncomfortable, and such is the price of reform.

Fighter wanted

"We needed someone who would fight, and be aggressive, and take charge and shake up the system," says Del. Rushern L. Baker III, chairman of the Prince George's house delegation, and the legislator who fought last year for the county to retain sovereignty over its school system.

Baker says Metts impressed lawmakers by making frequent trips to Annapolis in her first year and courting support from key people. But he is less than thrilled that her employees seem so sour.

Metts assumed control of a troubled system. A 1998 audit found so many problems that the Maryland General Assembly appointed an oversight panel.

The system consistently ranks second-worst to Baltimore City on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams, and only 30 percent of students are reading on grade-level by third grade. Seventeen percent of teachers are not fully certified. Many buildings are either overcrowded, in disrepair or both.

Enter Metts, who stunned employees with the speed at which she began her work. Some of her ideas have been popular, such as launching a new phonics reading program, upgrading technology so computers in the personnel department can interface with computers in the payroll department, and pushing through a contract for teachers that would give them their biggest raise in 16 years.

But other decisions, made with little input from employees, have drawn fire. This year, she implemented full-day kindergarten systemwide. Parents say they found out about the new format too late to plan their schedules, and principals say they learned too late to find staffing. Metts has demoted vice principals and principals and cut jobs in the curriculum department. But no move caused more rancor than a decision to shift $4 million from schools in wealthy neighborhoods to schools in poverty-stricken areas.

"This is the worst I've felt in all my years in Prince George's County," says a veteran principal who, like another colleague, requested anonymity, saying Metts has ordered them not to speak to the media. "I don't feel anyone is listening to me. And decisions are being made to the detriment of the children. It's very depressing."

Metts, amid a firestorm of complaints, found ways to return most of the money to the wealthier schools. But she insists that, without the shift, grant money earmarked for poor neighborhoods would continue to land in wealthy neighborhoods.

She also defends her decision not to seek opinions from principals before acting.

"What would they have said to me?" says Metts. "Don't do it."

Metts, 56, is proud of her "tenacity" and says she came to Prince George's with a plan to act quickly and boldly in the first year, to instill confidence in state officials, implementing radical if unpopular initiatives even without consensus. In her second year, she says, she'll worry more about mending relationships with staff, adding, " ... The window of opportunity to effect change is small."

Especially when powerful lawmakers in Annapolis are watching.

The House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the powerful Baltimore Democrat, had until Metts' arrival been withholding $8 million in funding for Prince George's. Rawlings gives Metts high marks and says he sees no reason to keep money from the county in the next legislative session.

'Lack of people skills'

Principals, parents and other observers caution that, by alienating her employees, Metts might squander her chances for reform.

"Whenever you bring someone in to shake things up, you have some turmoil, but it sounds like this superintendent is paying a price for lack of people skills," says Carol Gresser, former president of the New York City Board of Education and now director of Columbia University's Institute for School Board Leadership.

The school board hired Metts last year to a four-year contract with a starting salary of $176,000, and a provision for up to $30,000 in bonuses each year, based on performance

Though MSPAP scores dropped slightly in her first year, the school board gave Metts a $20,000 raise in her second year and $10,000 of the bonus money for meeting some of her first-year goals.

The county's union of principals and school administrators quickly fired off a letter to the board, questioning the raise.

"I'm still optimistic that changes are going to occur," says James Henderson, the board's chairman, who says he constantly reminds her to communicate more effectively. "Dr. Metts is way out in front of everybody else sometimes, and that's good. But at some point you have to reach back and pull everybody with you so they can catch up. She hasn't been very good at doing that."

In recent weeks, the chasm between Metts and the nine-member board has widened. Last month, the board rescinded $10,000 and $15,000 bonuses that Metts awarded to four of her deputies, saying she had no authority to do that without their permission. Three of the deputies have since filed a lawsuit demanding the money.

Then, before an Aug. 31 board meeting, Henderson suggested that Metts sit with her staff instead of with the board, according to two sources familiar with the conversation. Henderson refused to comment on whether he confronted Metts but said he has heard complaints that because of where Metts positions herself, there seems "very little difference between the board and superintendent."

Metts said that sitting with the board demonstrates teamwork, but that "where the superintendent sits is not a priority, it's not an important matter." She did not deny, however, that she threatened to resign over the issue.

Linda Waples, principal at Glassmanor Elementary in an impoverished section of Oxon Hill and president of the principals' union, says she hopes Metts will listen more to other views in her second year.

"She didn't really get to know people or hear from people," says Waples. "But that's how she operates - if you don't like it, go somewhere else. Well, why should I go somewhere else? I've been here 32 years."

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