Pr. George's Board Picks New Leader For Schools

John E. Deasy attended a meeting Monday in Upper Marlboro. At right is William Newman of Ray and Associates Inc.
John E. Deasy attended a meeting Monday in Upper Marlboro. At right is William Newman of Ray and Associates Inc. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006

The leader of a small Southern California school district emerged yesterday as the next Prince George's County schools chief, poised to take over a system troubled in recent years by leadership instability and stubborn student achievement gaps.

Without public dissent, the county school board chose Superintendent John E. Deasy of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District over administrators from Kansas and New York with greater experience in large urban systems. Deasy would move from a 14,000-student district to one nearly 10 times as large.

Board members called Deasy a passionate educator with a record of raising minority performance that they believe he can replicate on a wider stage.

Unless the board uncovers information that would disqualify Deasy or fails to agree to terms with him on a contract, the 45-year-old educator is scheduled to start in Prince George's on May 1.

Deasy (pronounced DAY-see) would be the fifth Prince George's school leader in the past decade. Two recent chiefs were magnets for controversy. Iris T. Metts feuded with her board, and Andre J. Hornsby quit in the spring amid an ethics probe.

Deasy offered himself as a leader free of ethical taint, challenging anyone to scour his record. He also pledged to close the black-white achievement gap that shadows schools in Prince George's and elsewhere in the country.

"This is a fulcrum issue in education," Deasy said in a telephone interview from Santa Monica. He said he was humbled. "I fully recognize there's a huge job ahead."

In Prince George's, where three-quarters of public school children are black, white third-graders have been three times more likely than black students to score at advanced levels on state reading tests. Conversely, black third-graders have been nearly twice as likely as their white counterparts to fail those tests.

Deasy, who is white, edged two African American finalists. He addressed race directly in a series of public and private meetings Monday in Upper Marlboro. At one point, Deasy asked interim schools chief Howard A. Burnett, who is black, whether his skin color would hinder his ability to lead.

"I told him," Burnett recalled, "that in truth I believe people just want to know that you care about what's best for their children." Deasy would be the first white leader of the county's schools since the departure of Edward M. Felegy in 1995.

"People want stability and the best candidate -- black, white or purple," school board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) said.

Lifting the achievement of black students and a fast-growing Latino student population is one of many challenges facing the next schools chief.

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