The group was small, but rabid.
About a dozen parents wanting to talk about a school board plan to end 14 years of door-to-door busing for magnet school students had gathered in a small conference room in Upper Marlboro. And they were seething as they waited for the new school superintendent, Iris T. Metts, to address them.
The controversy, which arose days after school had let out for the summer, had engendered anger, distrust and hard feelings among parents toward the Prince George's Board of Education. Less than two weeks earlier, most of these parents had been among a crowd of nearly 200 who had booed when the school board made what board members thought was a compromise solution that involved magnet students gathering at neighborhood bus stops.
The board didn't listen to us, the parents had protested. The plan was poorly thought out, they cried. Now, Metts, on the job for six days, had invited these dozen parents to her office; she was ready to hear their concerns for herself.
But first, she gave a short presentation. She said that trust had been broken among school officials and parents. She talked about her commitment to improving communication between those two groups. She presented a plan to ease the pain of the new busing system and said she wanted the parents' input before finalizing her plan.
By the end of the 1 1/2-hour meeting, in the place of the hard feelings was applause--for Metts, for her approach, her presentation, her ideas. Jack Bailer, chairman of the Community Advisory Council's magnet committee, led the clapping, and the other parents joined in.
To the parents, this moment seemed to signal the beginning of a new era of openness and full disclosure by the school system, which often has been criticized by parents. They have said it does not work hard enough to engage parents or keep them well-informed.
"The applause at end was for her just holding the meeting, which said a lot about her attitude and responsiveness," Bailer said. "She's open, she's inviting, she's inclusive."
"I certainly got a very positive feeling from her," said Dorothy Christofferson, vice president of the county's Parent-Teachers Association. "The thing that I found exciting about her style was that during the meeting, she obviously demonstrated she's a problem-solver. Often parents are treated condescendingly by school experts, but she seemed to listen, even though she was clearly exhausted to the point I felt bad for her. She was thinking about solving the problem, not just saying the right words."
To the parents, that was significant. In an independent audit last year, the system was criticized for not adequately tapping parents as resources to help the schools. The audit said the school system did not do well in disseminating information to parents on a timely basis.
Metts told the parents she wants to change that. She said she is disappointed in the system's largely outdated technology and poor use of it. She intends to computerize all busing schedules and post up-to-date changes on the school system's Web site to make it more user-friendly for parents.
"She implied she knew people who had experience [in this computerized system] that she was going to get in contact with," said Rick Tyler, a longtime parent activist who was at the meeting. "She said we'd be able to go on the Web page, and it will tell you what's going on with a particular bus route. If it's done right and has adequate money, it will be very interactive and responsive."
Metts also talked about getting her own e-mail account so she can communicate directly with parents on some issues and get feedback on her proposals. And she said she intends to set up a toll-free number for parents to call to express concerns.
"The community is often viewed as the enemy," Christofferson said. "She's being proactive with parents, instead of slamming them in the side of the head. . . . . And she instructed her staff to be flexible, which is a word we haven't heard. She said, 'We'll make mistakes, and it won't all work perfect, but we should be be flexible.' "
Indeed, not everything was agreed upon at the meeting last week. Christofferson said she was not satisfied with a draft of a letter Metts said she was going to send parents to explain the changes to the magnet school busing system. But, Christofferson said, Metts said she would take the parents' suggestions from last week's meetings and draft a new letter.
"I was a little disappointed in the letter I saw," Christofferson said. "It was not really explanatory. It was more a directive. That's a comment I will be sharing with her. It needs to be more of an explanation."
Metts declined to discuss the meeting in detail, saying she will announce her plan for the magnet school busing system as soon as it is finalized in the next few weeks. Metts also is working on several other issues. She plans to announce her action plan for the revamping of several important departments--including technology, personnel and instruction--by mid-August. She has four consultants evaluating those and other areas. They are to deliver reports of their findings soon.
Metts also said she will name her full-time deputies by the first week in August and begin implementing major changes to the central office staff and other areas of the system by late next month. By September, she intends to complete a study of teachers' salaries in an effort to continue addressing the salary gap between teachers in Prince George's and neighboring districts.
In her previous superintendent's post in Delaware, Metts made it a practice to turn to others, including parents, to gather information and advice. Metts, the superintendent of the Christina, Del., school system from 1990-97, had such a group that made suggestions on financial policy and other matters. That has not been a frequent practice in Prince George's public schools and is something parents, in particular, say they would like to see.
"What I see in her has every possible element of inviting and fostering communication and a clarity of understanding," Bailer said. "And that leads to good decision-making and disseminating of those decisions. She does not seem afraid to make tough decisions and appears to find things out quickly. Part of that is listening to the people."
CAPTION: Jack Bailer, chairman of the Community Advisory Council's magnet committee, praised the new superintendent, who met with magnet parents.