Scheduling Debacle Hurts Bid to Restore Trust in Prince George's, Md., Schools

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009; C01

The cost of the Prince George's County school system's failure to schedule classes for thousands of high school students during the first week of school can be measured in hours and days wasted, lessons unlearned and scarce cash blown on the overtime needed to fix a troubled computer system.

But the fiasco has also cost Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and the Board of Education something more precious and more difficult to measure: the public's trust.

"Why are we always subjected to substandard performance?" Rhonda Chandler, president of the Suitland High School PTA, asked Hite and board members at a heated school board meeting Thursday night. "It's just unacceptable. And heads do need to roll."

By Friday, five days into a crisis that stranded more than 8,000 of the system's 41,000 high school students without classes on the first day of school, nearly 1,300 students still lacked schedules. Parents vented their frustrations at Thursday's meeting, saying it was all too familiar for children in Prince George's to be let down by adults.

For Hite, the scheduling crisis came at a delicate time -- his first full year as superintendent. The school board has made it an important part of its agenda to restore public faith in the system after years of scandal and infighting that unfolded before the nine members, all political newcomers, took office in 2006.

But Thursday's meeting was not likely to instill confidence. Board members and Hite appeared not to know of the scheduling problems until the opening bell of the school year.

Hite's chief information officer, W. Wesley Watts Jr., gave a blow-by-blow account of how staff members steadily fell behind on scheduling classes because of computer problems, and he said the staff "knew there would be some issues" when school started. But Hite, who took office as interim superintendent in December and was appointed to the permanent position in April, said he didn't realize the magnitude of the crisis until he visited a school Monday morning.

"At Laurel High School, I saw about 400 kids sitting in the gymnasium. And that's when I knew we had a problem," he said.

School board members were upset that they weren't informed until it was too late. Heather Iliff (District 2) called for an investigation, and Vice Chairman Ron Watson (At Large) said he was shocked by the failure to communicate.

"For us to go out on the first day of school and not know anything about this, and to have a news station come to us asking what's going on is unacceptable," Watson told Hite. "Had the board known, there would have been some options we could have dealt with. We could have delayed opening schools for a few days. . . . I hope we don't find ourselves here again."

Lavonn Reedy Thomas, whose son is a junior at Henry A. Wise Jr. High School in Upper Marlboro, said she knew something was wrong with the schedules three weeks before school opened. She said the root of the problem was the attempt to do too much, too fast, with a new $4.1 million computer system.

"I think that there's a rush to prove to outsiders, and maybe even to the residents of Prince George's County, that we are a quality school system," Thomas said. "I think that in the rush, there's been a creation of chaos, miscommunication, mismanagement and just craziness. At the end of the day, it's just craziness."

It was reminiscent of the days before the board took office. The previous elected board quarreled with then-schools chief Iris T. Metts and was dissolved by the state in 2002. The next school board, which was appointed, hired as superintendent Andre J. Hornsby, who is now serving time in federal prison after a conviction on corruption charges.

Members of the current board said that they are fed up with the school system's serving as entertainment for skeptics in and outside the county and that they want to restore the public's faith.

"Dysfunction in Prince George's County is an arena sport," said Rosalind Johnson (District 1).

The current board has run into other bumps along the way. One member resigned after being accused of having sex with a 15-year-old student. (The charge was later dropped.) A high-profile superintendent, John E. Deasy, left for another job late last year after just 2 1/2 years with the system, leaving several major initiatives unfinished. Other top officials have left as well.

Under Hite, who succeeded Deasy, school leaders have made some difficult decisions. They closed eight schools and eliminated hundreds of jobs to balance the budget; they oversaw the redrawing of school boundaries for a large chunk of the county; and they have campaigned against truancy and high student suspension rates. Standardized test scores have risen steadily while they have been in office.

Hite has vowed that the scheduling problems will be fixed and not repeated. "We understand the hardship and anxiety that this has created for families," Hite said. "I accept full responsibility for this."

Board members said that they understood the damage the scheduling crisis has wrought but that they believe the school system can recover.

"I think it definitely affects" the public's trust, Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large) said after Thursday's meeting. "We've got to be transparent. We've got to be open. And we've got to be honest. We've got to be urgent about what standards our kids expect, and it's not this."

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