Maryland lawmakers should release $8 million they withheld from the Prince George's County school system because administrators are moving to improve the management of the troubled district, a panel overseeing reform efforts said.

The panel, created last year by legislators concerned that the school system was not taking reform efforts seriously, said new School Superintendent Iris T. Metts has "set a tone for change." More importantly, Metts has established a time line for implementing most of the recommendations contained in a state-ordered audit of the school system, the panel said.

Metts "believes in the [reform] process," said James W. Dyke Jr., consultant to the panel, which is to report to the legislature Nov. 17 its assessment of the system's progress. "She has been proactive in establishing systemwide support for the audit, enhanced by the superintendent's own ideas of reform."

The panel said it will watch closely to see how Metts follows her improvement plans and will report to state leaders again in the spring.

"The new administration should be given the benefit of the doubt, but later we will want to see the proof," oversight panel member Jose Torres said.

The endorsement is welcome news for Prince George's school officials, who last spring were criticized by the panel for moving too slowly to solve widespread problems itemized in the audit. That prompted Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to withhold the $8 million.

Then the Prince George's Board of Education hired Metts to replace Jerome Clark, who resigned in July. Metts has since met with Rawlings and other state officials to present a "very specific" improvement plan, which she said identifies staff members who will implement each audit recommendation and the dates by which they must complete each task.

In response to the audit, Metts has moved to improve technology, particularly in the transportation department, and engaged parents through public hearings and an upgraded Web site (www.pgcps.org).

Metts said she does not agree with all of the audit suggestions. But she acknowledges that the system can save money by cutting waste, and she has eliminated 130 central office jobs, at a savings of several million dollars.

Metts hopes to use some of the $8 million to start an in-school suspension program at each middle school and high school.

"Dr. Metts has identified problems and admitted there are problems, and that we need to do some things to change it," said Democratic Del. Rushern L. Baker III, chairman of the Prince George's delegation. "She's going to be able to tackle the big issue of accountability, and she's going to be able to attract the additional dollars [from the state] to go on to the next phase, which is to improve test scores."