Tall Order For New Schools Chief
Fiscal Woes Add To Challenges In Pr. George's

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 1, 2008

A new superintendent takes over Prince George's County schools today, pledging to stick to the far-reaching academic goals of his predecessor but handicapped by the possible slashing of millions of dollars from his budget.

William R. Hite Jr., a former Virginia Tech running back with an easygoing manner and two decades of educational experience in Virginia and Georgia, will serve as interim superintendent of the 130,000-student system as the school board searches for a permanent successor to John E. Deasy.

Deasy resigned at the end of September to take a job with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Hite had been Deasy's deputy since 2006.

Board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large) has said the board hopes to name a successor by the end of the school year. So far, Hite, 47, is the only publicly declared candidate for the top job in the region's third-largest school system, after Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

Hite said he hopes to continue a trend of rising academic performance in the county, which, with Baltimore, is one of two jurisdictions on a Maryland watch list for struggling school systems. One recent sign of progress came last month when the State Department of Education announced that Prince George's had showed adequate performance on state tests for the first time since the testing began in 2003. If the county can do the same next year, it will have earned its way off the list.

It won't be an easy march to victory. In addition to the difficulties Prince George's has faced for years -- four superintendents since 1999, a large population of students from poor families, and high rates of disciplinary problems and truancy-- a national financial crisis stands between where the county is now and where its leaders want it to be.

"That's what I worry about the most: the money," said school board member Rosalind A. Johnson (District 1). "Where is it going to come from? The state doesn't have it. The county doesn't have it. Obviously the federal government doesn't have it."

Hite and Deasy say they see eye-to-eye on academic policy, but observers point out that when Deasy took office in May 2006, the school system's finances were flush enough to allow Deasy to move forward with ambitious plans, some of which have been left hanging by his sudden departure. Now, with the county government furloughing employees and discussing potential layoffs of hundreds of workers, Hite's hands may be tied.

"Deasy came to us with an enormous fund balance. Hite does not have that advantage," said school board member Donna Hathaway Beck (At Large). "Hite will oversee what could be, most likely will be, dramatic cuts in the operating budget. You can't underestimate the anticipated effect of tenures marked by different fiscal starting points."

One of Deasy's few public critics, Doris A. Reed -- executive director of the Association of Supervisory and Administrative Personnel, which represents principals and other administrators -- was more blunt. "He's got a hell of a job ahead of him," she said of Hite. "John is leaving him with one big . . . mess to clean up."

One of the first major tasks facing Hite is assembling the next budget, to be presented in mid-December. The forecast is bleak. Deasy warned that the system could see "tens of millions" of dollars vanish from its $1.7 billion budget if state lawmakers force local jurisdictions to pay for pensions. Hite said he would try to keep cuts from county classrooms as much as possible, but he didn't seem optimistic that they would go unscathed.

"One of the challenges is to protect the work that has made the most difference for our youth in terms of achievement while understanding that we will likely be working with fewer dollars," Hite said. "Unfortunately but inevitably, we will have to really make lots of strategic decisions around our fiscal outlook."

Hite has not formally unveiled an agenda, but he said that in his first 100 days he hopes to create a "performance-based budget" system, which he described as "a budget that is designed around those things that we have seen are most critical in our schools. Not designed around an amount but designed around the work."

Another goal, he said, is to overhaul the county's high schools, beginning with "opportunities for our communities to engage in a very public dialogue in what they'd want to see in a graduate from Prince George's County."

There is little question that improvement is needed. Most county high schools have truancy rates of more than 10 percent and demonstrate middling to low academic performance, according to state data. Even at schools that meet state standards, such as Fairmont Heights High School, test scores are relatively low: 58 percent of students tested there in the previous school year showed proficiency in reading; 53 percent showed proficiency in math. (That is nevertheless an improvement. In 2003, four of 206 students passed the math test.)

As Deasy walked away from his job, he said he thought the system was ready to handle what comes, largely because of a restoration of public trust in the schools. When he arrived, the system was reeling from the loss of schools chief Andre J. Hornsby, who was sentenced last week to six years in federal prison in a public corruption case, and the dissolution of the elected school board during the acrimonious tenure of Iris T. Metts, Hornsby's predecessor.

Now an elected board is back in office, the county is poised to earn its way off the state watch list and the transition to a new superintendent hasn't been marked by political bloodletting.

"I've been really struck the last three to five weeks that I've walked around," Deasy said. "People have just said, they just can't believe how far the schools have come. Confidence has been rebuilt in the schools."

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