Gov. Parris N. Glendening and key state legislators agreed on a plan yesterday to strip the embattled Prince George's County school board of most of its powers - in effect taking control of Maryland's second-largest school system.
"It is clear there is a crisis in the management of the Prince George's County public schools," Glendening said. "It is critical that we act now before the destructive pattern that currently exists causes permanent damage to the education of our children."
Under the plan, the county school board would have to answer to an emergency "crisis management board" appointed by the governor, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and County Executive Wayne K. Curry.
The panel could be in place as early as next week, officials said, and the county's elected board would have to get its permission on major policy decisions, personnel actions and purchases in excess of $25,000.
The new structure would mark the most significant shift in authority over a school system since Baltimore relinquished some control over its system to the state in 1997.
"I am sad that I have to introduce this legislation, but it's what we need to do to prevent the board from making any more crazy decisions," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III, a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the county's House delegation.
The agreement occurred as the county school board renewed its efforts to fire Prince George's Superintendent Iris T. Metts. The board voted 6-3 Saturday night to fire her. But a county circuit judge temporarily blocked the action, ruling the board had failed to give Metts proper notice.
Yesterday morning, board Chairman Kenneth E. Johnson handed Metts a termination letter, giving her the 45 days' notice required by the ruling. The board met again last night, and a majority reaffirmed its decision to fire her.
"I have lost confidence in the superintendent's ability to move the system forward academically," Johnson said. "I don't think there's any reason we can't terminate any of our employees."
But Metts and the three board members who voted against firing her filed appeals yesterday with the state school board, contending that the firing was illegal. A state Management Oversight Panel named in 1999 to help resolve the county's education problems said yesterday that it also will appeal the board's decision.
Metts and the Prince George's board have been fighting almost from the time she joined the system 2 1/2 years ago after serving as Delaware's secretary of education - arguing over such issues as seating arrangements during board meetings and bonuses paid to the superintendent's top deputies.
Grasmick said the state board will move quickly to consider the appeals. Meeting with Prince George's legislators, she said that the appeals limited what she could say, but she acknowledged that the conflicts are taking their toll on a system that has the second-lowest test scores in Maryland.
For example, Prince George's has the second-highest percentage of provisionally certified teachers in Maryland and is struggling to recruit enough qualified teachers. "From a recruiting perspective, is that a place you want to go, when you've heard about this turmoil?" Grasmick asked.
The emergency legislation being pushed through the General Assembly would nullify any actions taken by the board since Feb. 1 - including its vote to fire Metts. "The issue is that we need to limit what this board can do," said Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's Democrat.
Under the legislation, the governor would appoint two members, the county executive would appoint two and Grasmick would appoint the fifth member.
The crisis board would oversee the system until county legislators agree on a new structure to replace the current elected board. A compromise proposal being discussed would change the board to six members elected by voters and three appointed by the governor, with the appointed members becoming elected after several years.
But yesterday, County Executive Curry proposed an ambitious alternative to consolidate control of the system under his office.
Curry would replace the board with a five-person control board appointed by him to five-year terms - and then replaced by a new appointed or elected board. He also would transfer business operations to the county government and create a chief academic officer to oversee instruction.
"I'm embarrassed, shocked, dismayed and disappointed by what has been going on," Curry said. "I have asked over and over again for incremental changes in the board, and it hasn't happened. Now it's time for a significant change."