Five months ago, state lawmakers abolished the elected school board in Prince George's County and replaced it with an appointed panel. The new board has forged a peaceful relationship with schools chief Iris T. Metts, who feuded bitterly with members of the elected board. But difficult issues remain, including a $13.6 million budget shortfall, parent unrest over a plan to restructure magnet schools, and questions about Metts's future. Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro), the board's chairman, discussed these topics with staff writer Nancy Trejos.
QYou have been in office since June. Parents and state lawmakers are counting on this new board to produce positive results. What kind of progress have you made?
AAll the ills of the system did not occur overnight and will not be solved overnight. But we have made an impact: increasing teacher salaries, reducing class sizes in grades K to 3, looking for a permanent CEO, and ending a 30-year-old desegregation case.
What has been the hardest part of the job so far?
For me, one of the most challenging parts has been working with a board of people I did not know, many I didn't work with [before]. The first thing you can do to make any difference in a school system the size of Prince George's is to have a functional board. You have to make sure the board is all on the same page in terms of direction. . . .Also, when you're competing with a Montgomery County, an Anne Arundel County and a Fairfax and you have limited technology, it puts you in a difficult position. The need for technology was far greater certainly than we had assumed.
Increasing teacher salaries and reducing class sizes with a limited budget has been difficult as well. I think the extent of where we are with the budget will have a major impact on what we can do in fiscal 2004, in terms of new programs and in terms of negotiations of salaries.
You mentioned the budget. In the last month, Dr. Metts's estimated deficit for fiscal 2002 almost doubled, and you're looking at another possible shortfall in the current fiscal year. What can you do to solve this problem?
I certainly want to begin to look to the new [County] Council for supplemental support. I certainly would like to work with the new governor to find what new avenues exist for this school system. Hopefully, we can identify new revenue sources.
You have also had to restructure the system's magnet school program. A federal judge ordered that the board decide on a plan for that overhaul by December. Dr. Metts recommended one last month, but she quickly withdrew it. What did you think of her original plan, and what do you hope the next one will look like?
The first plan, I think, was premature, but it was a stab at getting something on the table. . . . We need time to develop strong programs that will attract students of different talents and abilities. We have to make sure that these magnets are in areas where all children have access to them and have adequate transportation.
The board you replaced often battled publicly with Dr. Metts. How would you describe your relationship with her so far?
I believe, first of all, this board had a learning curve. First we had to learn each other. I think our relationship with Metts is a collaborative one, a cooperative one.
You are in the midst of searching for a new CEO. Dr. Metts has said she would be interested in the job. Is she the favored candidate at this point?
There are no favorites. Right now, we're at the point where we're placing ads in newspapers. Dr. Metts has indicated not just to me but to people in general that she is interested. If she wants to apply, her application will be accepted by the search firm we hired.
Other than finding a new chief executive, what are your goals for the rest of your term?
The board would like to further reduce class sizes up to grade 6, to develop a strong and objective teacher-evaluation plan, to increase the number of certified teachers and also to be able to hire more special education teachers.