Prince George's County School Superintendent Iris T. Metts spoke to reporters and editors last week at The Washington Post. A partial transcript of the discussion is printed here.
Q. Your emphasis at the outset is to deal with central office there to make it more efficient. Can you tell us about that and what that priority is and what you expect to have happen as a result of that?
A. We're very excited about what we're doing right now. We started with the central office because we were well aware that the real action in improving achievement in academics in the district would be centered in schools, and in fact the school leadership was the primary focus of our improvement efforts, but when we looked at the numbers in central office and the organization in central office we thought that perhaps we needed to trip some of the positions and bring in some change agents. I'll call them that. I see myself as a change agent and one who's, I think, pretty adept to look at modernizing and making more efficient the operation of the school system because of my background, my experience, and to bring with me people who have been extremely successful in other organizations to help me make that change. One of the disturbing things about the central office was that it . . . perhaps it lost its mission and its relationship to promoting change in schools and making sure that schools function better. It was viewed as a step up and not necessarily a step to help the organization generally, so we wanted to, to reconnect the central office to the major mission of the school organization.
Secondly, I could not find a reason for the increase, the percentage of increase in the number of people who were connected with central office. It seems that there really wasn't the formula or any kind of a philosophical progression about how many people should serve in central office.
Then I noticed that there were so many people who were not connected directly with teaching children in our organization as compared to some other districts, and that was a little bit disturbing.
And lastly, I was acutely aware that the whole function of central office was not effective. We had communication problems. We were not a team as I would want to see us to be a team. Often when the media approached us, it was difficult to get an answer because of that lack of teaming and effort of making sure that we were all just on the same page on any issue.
So with that in mind, we first looked at some budgetary concerns we had for getting some technology in the system and thought that the best way to reduce would be to take a look at the reduction in central office, and secondly we wanted to identify things that, we wanted to identify essential jobs versus nonessential jobs, so we went through and we carved out approximately 130 positions. . . . For the most part, we tried to identify a place for people to go. In some instances, people will be let go. . . .
How is this going over both in the central office itself, where obviously a lot of people's lives are going to have to change, and out in the schools, in terms of their view of how this will affect service to the school?
I don't think I've attended a meeting of teachers where I did not receive a very warm reception. Teachers generally are very enthusiastic about the suggestions that I've made, the changes in their work environment as well as of my focus on the school as a unit of improvement for the system. So I think the teachers were very receptive. Parents generally have been very receptive. . . . I have some concern about morale in the central office and one thing I've said: If you stay in the central office you are good, because we really thoroughly went through that office and looked at necessary positions and quality of staff that's there so you should be proud . . . to be a part of the organization ultimately. I think there's still a lot of hesitation and uncertainty about what my next step will be. . . .
How satisfied are you with the quality of the teachers you were able to attract during this hiring season that was so difficult for all school districts?
Well, I think first of all, it was a very frightening experience for me personally. . . . I knew there were problems coming into the district. Didn't realize just how deep-seated some of those problems were, particularly in the personnel area. Quite honestly, I'm alarmed to learn that we needed over 1,700 teachers when I walked in the door. However, the first day of my tenure, the former human resources director and I agreed to accept his resignation. And he had actually tendered the resignation earlier, and it was not accepted. But when I came to the conclusion about the degree of difficulty that we had in filling those positions, it seemed very clear that we needed a change. . . . There was no effective system, technology or database scrutiny to return our inquiries; we had about 1,000 applications on file that we simply had not responded to the people to tell them that here's an interview with a follow-up. So we were continuously having job fairs and interviews, but we didn't have the mechanism to follow up on the applicant. So once we discovered that there was an organizational problem, a technology problem, we established a database. We got things organized.
Then we had a problem with provisionally certified teachers. And about a week after Dr. [Eleanor] White and I took over, we were surprised to learn that about 400 contracts were [sent out] . . . and that's how we got . . . the provisionally certified teachers so even after we said we didn't want to hire any additional teachers without certificates, it was beyond my control. The contracts had already been issued to a lot of those people coming in. So we from then on looked very carefully at who we hired. We also brought with us about 200 to 300 interested teachers from Pennsylvania universities. I don't know if you're aware that Maryland does not produce enough teachers in its institutions to staff all of its public schools. Maryland and Delaware were net importers of teachers. . . .
I think we just need to find a new person to come in and totally reorganize the department and start the search process as soon as we can in late October. We will be sending letters out to all honor students at universities. I have a network of friends who are deans at various universities, and I use those. And we'll try to recruit a high-quality staff. And most importantly we want to keep the quality people that we've recruited. We have suffered from some other districts coming in and just taking our good people. Some of it's money. Some of it's we've not treated them and supported them as well as we could.
You talk about the money. I know the board had discussed before you came on a salary package for teachers. There's been agreement that the school board would produce a study on teacher salaries by September. Has that been delayed?
It's been delayed by a few weeks. I wanted to expand the original scope of the study, not just to look at compensation issues per se but per-pupil expenditure issues. And what I mean by that is that it's not just about compensating staff, it's about supporting education on the same basis as other surrounding areas support education. It's programs, technology. There are other things that we ought to support. In fact, most of the surrounding school districts spend more per pupil than the Prince George's system. I was astonished to see that even in Baltimore City. We've fallen behind in per-pupil expenditures, and it's now a matter of holding Prince George's school system accountable to the same standards as other school districts but not providing enough resources that would be equal to what other school districts receive. So it's accountability without equity, and I'm not saying that I'm thinking about that, but that's certainly ripe for some court. Because there's lots of litigation currently afoot in the country on that issue.
What about TRIM?
I think TRIM is an issue. It's an issue for state officials looking at the county and saying, well you have TRIM so we can't support you until you do something about TRIM. But TRIM is also there because there is a perception within the community that the school system is not delivering what it should, a well-prepared student in an effective and efficient manner. So until that concept is eliminated and until there is a belief in this school system, I don't know if you're going to have the citizens of the county giving us the authority to increase taxes or to remove TRIM. It is similar to the referendum that I would have faced in Delaware if I'd stayed there. You have to have the confidence of the public to get a tax increase, and I think TRIM is symptomatic of that. No matter how TRIM started--and I've heard all sorts of political dissertations on why we have TRIM, you hear various points of view about why it's there--but what it boils down to now is restoring the confidence in the public school system in order to get some increases in taxes. So it, the state has gotten a great deal in helping us with buildings and construction and renovation. Now it's really down to general fund financing of the school system, and that's TRIM. So first of all, I see my job as convincing the public that we are spending the money well and that in fact our students do well academically and in fact that we're in the top 10 of school districts academically in the state. And some people heard me say that, and they said: 'What is this? This is impossible. She can't do that.' And yes you can. If you have a conservative increase of 6 points per year and if you have structured an academic program that is geared toward improvement, yes you can. You could very well be in the top 10. We have about 40 percent of our students living in poverty; 60 percent don't. We have one of the most affluent African American populations in the country. There's absolutely no reason why we should not be doing better. . . . That's not acceptable to me, and we will fight hard to reverse that.
Have you spoken to local political leaders about putting their children in the public schools?
Well, I thought the first thing I'd try to do is just to get the politicians to sit on the stage together. That was my first goal. Well, they didn't fight each other. It was, someone said this must be the convention of the potential candidates for county executive. I didn't comment on that. The congressman [Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.)] sort of made some statements that the county exec [Wayne K. Curry] had to defend some of his stands. But they've been at that for years, I understand. There's sort of a contest between the two of them, so it's very interesting. But what I really wanted to do first is to say that the political leaders of Prince George's County do support public education. That's the very first thing we have to say, make a statement to support. Now the first statement was to come together. . . . The second statement is to reinvest in the school by demonstrating that you believe we're effective [garbled] back into those schools. So the first step was successful. The second step I'm working on.
What about the county's affluent African Americans deciding not to send their children to public schools? How concerned are you about that?
I don't think that affluent African American parents are any different from affluent parents in other ethnic groups. At a certain point, you consider private schools. If you have certain religious convictions, you consider religious private schools. It's no different. The fact that we have more affluent African Americans in Prince George's County did not surprise me, if they look at private schools. And I don't think my battle is to try to deprive private schools of students. I think there will always be private schools. I think that what I need to do is do the best job possible in public education, which I think is a different mission altogether, and we don't turn anybody away. We take all children. . . .
And I think it's a very important part of the fiber of America, why we are what we are today. And I guess I won't spend a lot of time fighting private schools. It's just not in my best interests nor philosophically where I am.
Are you worried that all schools and superintendents are graded by test scores now and watched by everyone?
First of all, my being appointed superintendent is going to have zero effect on the test scores. The kids took the tests well before, when I was secretary of education in Delaware. Now I'm responsible for those test scores in Delaware, but not in Maryland. . . . Secondly, they went up last year, and I would suspect they will go up this year. I think it wasn't that we didn't have some plans to increase test scores. I just don't think it was enough, and we were not organized enough to see an effective change. . . .
But I think in the future, teachers will be evaluated on student achievement and test scores. If you read the literature and a report that was commissioned by Congress, the tests were never designed to do what we're doing with them in education. . . . It's the political position of public schools right now that we're being forced to hang onto something that technically is very difficult to rationalize. Yet in the public's point of view, they have to have an anchor to believe in their public schools again. So it's probably more a legal decision than an academic decision, and I'm well aware of the limitations of testing. . . . But I can tell you that the problem in Prince George's is that all the other districts that started with very low test scores have now improved tremendously, and we've not made that progress. . . .
Even if we have students who live in poverty, they're going to have to work, they're going to have to achieve in our society. They're going to have to be able to function in our society.
Continued next week.
CAPTION: "There's absolutely no reason why we should not be doing better. . . . That's not acceptable to me,and we will fight hard to reverse that," said new School Superintendent Iris T. Metts.