Think back to the political storm whipped up last year by an independent audit that said there was $125 million of fat in the Prince George's school budget.
All the school system had to do, the audit said, was get rid of waste and improve the school system's management. The savings would add up over five years.
From Annapolis came an immediate call for quick changes. When the quick fix didn't come quickly enough, legislators threatened to eliminate the elected school board in Prince George's County.
County Executive Wayne K. Curry, a longtime critic of the school system, also suggested that the county could pay teachers more if only school officials ran a tighter operation.
The storm swallowed former superintendent Jerome Clark, who retired in July. When he and school board members tried to dispute some of the audit's recommendations, no one heard them. By then, the political winds were too loud and furious.
But now, there is calm.
You have to admire the way new Superintendent Iris T. Metts has brought it about. But here's a curiosity: When you consider her assessment of the audit, it isn't much different from that of her predecessor.
"The audit had so many errors," she said in a recent interview. "In some places, I think it was boilerplate and not realistic for the situation in Prince George's County."
There will be savings, she said. But will they be close to $125 million?
"Absolutely not," Metts said.
So far, though, her view of the audit seems to be widely shared. There were no fireworks when she reported her findings recently to a state panel--the so-called management oversight panel--appointed to watch over the system's reform efforts. Panel members, scheduled to present an oral report on the system's progress to the House Appropriations Committee on Nov. 17, have said in newspaper reports that they are pleased with Metts's approach.
Clark certainly must wonder why everybody is being so nice to Metts when he tried to tell folks from the beginning that the document was flawed.
Board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland) initially questioned the audit, but he is in no mood to gloat these days because he soon will leave the board to head a statewide task force that will examine equity in school financing.
"I don't think anyone ever thought the audit was gospel," Thornton said. "I think the mistake that was made by all of us was to begin to take that [$125 million] figure and make it more concrete and specific than it was ever meant to be."
Though I believe the audit has value, I'd have to be a fool to ignore the role of politics.
Clark had his flaws, and the system probably is better off with fresh, more aggressive leadership. Local and state politicians criticized Clark's approach to implementing the audit's recommendations, which seemed piecemeal and not part of an overall vision.
But Clark unfairly became the lightning rod for everything that was wrong in Prince George's schools. People in powerful places wanted him out, and the audit made it easier for them to show him the door.
"Some of what transpired in respect to the audit arose from what was going on in public education politics," said council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), a former school board member. "They wanted to get rid of Dr. Clark. They wanted to take over the school system."
Who were they? "The Curry administration and legislators in Annapolis," Hendershot said.
Metts had the advantage of being an outsider, and it certainly helped that she was blessed with enough political sense to recognize her predecessor's missteps and take a different route.
She stepped in and almost immediately eliminated 130 positions from the school system's central office staff. She made it her business to form a good working relationship with members of the panel, particularly its chairman, Artis Hampshire-Cowan. She also created a three-person team to evaluate each of the audit's 300 recommendations and come up with a plan for addressing them.
The team grouped the recommendations into 40 categories, listed them in order of importance, explained in a report how the system will address them and assigned a staff member to take care of each one.
"We closely examined the audit," Metts said. "We closely matched the audit with the master plan. We prioritized the audit recommendations. I think we have a document that is much more defensible."
Metts is confident that the oversight panel will give the state House Appropriations Committee a favorable report, which immediately would release $8 million in additional state funds to the county.
Despite all the politics, the audit did have a powerful impact. It shamed Prince George's school officials into looking more closely at how they were spending taxpayers' money. And it shook some things up.
In the end, a new, politically savvy school administration has figured out how to placate local and state politicians and how to save--or perhaps, find better use for--millions of dollars, though nowhere near $125 million.
People seem happy with that. I suppose I am, too.
But here we are, in many ways back where we started more than a year ago. We still have underachieving schools and underpaid teachers in a grossly underfinanced school system. Meanwhile, our neighbor and nemesis, Montgomery County, continues to spend about $200 million more than Prince George's every year for fewer students.
So, to Wayne Curry, the County Council and the Maryland General Assembly--all those who control the county's purse strings--I say:
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CAPTION: Former superintendent Jerome Clark retired in July.
CAPTION: New Superintendent Iris T. Metts restored calm.
CAPTION: Chairman Alvin Thornton had questioned the audit.