The state school board overturned the firing of Prince George's County Superintendent Iris T. Metts last night, declaring that local school boards do not have the authority to fire their superintendents.
The unanimous decision could have far-reaching implications for every school system in Maryland, and school board members from other counties said last night that they were stunned to learn they have the power to hire superintendents but not to fire them.
"The state superintendent has the exclusive authority to terminate a local superintendent," said state school board President Marilyn D. Maultsby, delivering the ruling on behalf of the board.
If school boards want their superintendents out before the end of four-year contracts, they must negotiate resignations and cash payments, according to the state board's ruling.
The president of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, Rodney L. Durst, called the decision "very surprising" last night.
"I thought that the superintendent was the only one we could hire or fire," said Durst, a school board member in Garrett County. "We can't hire or fire teachers. But hiring or firing the superintendent was our prerogative."
For the Prince George's superintendent, last night's ruling represents a victory in her battle to keep her job as the head of Maryland's second-largest school system.
"Dr. Metts is extremely elated," said her lawyer, Stuart Grozbean. "She wants to be here, she's working hard for the kids. If she was going to leave, she wouldn't be here."
Metts and most of the board have been fighting almost from the time she arrived in Prince George's 2 1/2 years ago, arguing over such issues as bonuses for her deputies and seating arrangements at board meetings. Before coming to Maryland, Metts was Delaware's secretary of education.
The Prince George's board voted 6-3 to fire Metts on Feb. 2. A Circuit Court judge temporarily blocked her termination in an emergency Sunday night hearing, ruling the board had failed to give Metts the 45 days' notice that was required by her contract.
The next morning, the board's chairman delivered a letter to Metts giving her that notice. But the injunction gave Metts - as well as the three board members who supported her - 10 days to file an appeal with the state school board.
The state board heard about an hour of legal arguments from attorneys for Metts, the board majority and the board minority. It then spent about an hour behind closed doors before issuing its decision to overturn the firing.
In the appeal, attorneys for Metts and the board minority argued that state law gives local boards the power to hire superintendents for four-year contracts, but it never explicitly authorizes local boards to end those contracts prematurely.
They also pointed to a 1937 state attorney general's opinion that found only the state superintendent has the power to fire superintendents.
But the attorney for the Prince George's board majority, Andrew Nussbaum, argued that the contract signed by Metts allowed for her to be fired because she and the board had negotiated the 45-day notice clause.
None of the attorneys could find a prior instance when a local Maryland board had fired a superintendent. Instead, superintendents have agreed to cash buyouts if local boards wanted them out before the end of their terms.
The state board will issue a lengthy written opinion this month, said Valerie V. Cloutier, an assistant attorney general with the state Department Of Education.
The Prince George's board can appeal the state board's decision to the county Circuit Court, and two members said last night that's what they intend to do.
"This is really retro, '50s-style, back-room politicking," said board member James Henderson. "It was a legitimate contract, and they disregarded the facts."
The board's chairman, Kenneth E. Johnson, said he was "very disappointed" by the decision.
"The state board is essentially saying that the local board has no authority over the superintendent, and that only the state superintendent has that authority," Johnson said. "So in effect it makes it very hard to manage our own superintendent."
"I think we have to appeal it, because it has such serious implications," Johnson said.
As the state board was issuing its ruling, supporters and opponents of the Prince George's board gathered in Annapolis last night for a rally outside the State House.
The board's attempt to fire Metts has prompted Prince George's lawmakers to rapidly push legislation through the General Assembly to strip the board of much of its power. The emergency bill would create a crisis management board appointed by the governor, county executive and state schools superintendent. The local elected board would need to obtain the new panel's permission on major policy, personnel and spending decisions.
The bill - backed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening - is expected to be taken up by the full House of Delegates today and could be on the governor's desk for signing by the end of the week. County lawmakers then hope to reach a compromise by the end of the session on a permanent structure to replace the current elected board.
In the meantime, board members in other school systems - while emphasizing they aren't taking sides in the Prince George's dispute - are left wondering about the implications of the state board's decision.
Howard County school board member Sandra French said she always understood the state superintendent had to approve the qualifications of newly hired local superintendents.
"But never in all my years did I think that permission to fire was necessary," French said.
Sun staff writer Sarah Koenig contributed to this article.