Prince George's schools chief Iris T. Metts won't seek reappointment to her $212,000 a year job as head of one of the state's most challenging school systems -- one that has budget problems, is under intense pressure to improve the second-lowest scores in the state on many standardized tests, and is attempting to educate a multilingual and often economically deprived student population.
After almost four years on the job, Metts, 60, formerly education secretary in Delaware, will join a national education firm. Metts spoke Sunday with Washington Post education writer Nancy Trejos about her tenure as head of the 135,000-student school system and her decision to leave when her contract expires in June. Excerpts are below:
QHow did you reach your decision to leave the school district and accept a new job?
AThere were several companies that tried to recruit me. . . . And each time I thought about it and I said, "Nah, I think I want to stay." And I really thought that the consistency and the stability was needed in the district, and it would have been perhaps good to stay until we got some money to really finish the reform. But increasingly, as I looked at the prospects of going to another job and having some very interesting offers, it became very clear to me that perhaps it was time to just look at something different, and an offer came along that I thought was an excellent fit and it would allow me to complete my contract. [Metts would not name her new employer, saying she wanted to finalize details.]
How do you feel about leaving the Prince George's County school system?
I feel I did all that I could do. The continuity of helping end the school term is the last part I think I can contribute. I think I can help with at least resolving the budget problems and helping with the magnet school program, defining where it's going, helping the board to determine that. And we will end the year with the budget in balance, and I will want to make sure that we don't have over-expenditures in this budget coming up and it appears that we will not, so I'm going to do whatever I can to end on a good note.
What have been your accomplishments?
One thing I don't think people realize is that I stabilized the district a great deal in upping the compensation with employees and making sure that we maintained a consistent teaching corps. . . . We tried some real innovative things like involving the churches in Head Start. I was really ready to talk to the private sector to look at some preschool accommodations and private sector facilities, which I think would have been the next logical thing to do because we don't have enough space. . . . It's just a lot of things that we did that people don't really give us a lot of credit for. And the interesting thing is it was always a swirl of controversy around relationships that really got more noticed than some of the work that we were doing.
Even when the elected board was abolished, did you find it difficult to move on and forget about the past?
It just was regrettable. Imagine what we could have done together. If I managed to accomplish what I accomplished in the midst of turmoil, can you imagine what it would have been like if it hadn't been that kind of a combative relationship? But I've been accused of being a part of it yet I never engaged in public bashing of any of them. They seemed to have been the ones who tried to publicly embarrass me. I never tried to publicly embarrass them. . . . It doesn't make you feel good when people do that to you, but I just find it's counterproductive to dwell on it.
If you had stayed in the running for the CEO position, would it have been difficult for you to have to compete with others?
Well, I think there were lots of people who encouraged me and there were lots of people who supported me, but, you know, at some point it just didn't seem to be the best direction to take, to compete. I'm a veteran superintendent. I've proven my worth in several different situations. . . . I don't think I particularly wanted to go through that again. That would have been uncomfortable for me, and I don't know how good it would have been for the school system. It would tear the community apart. There would be people who would support me and there would be people who would be against me. I just didn't think that would be real healthy for the school district or the community, so it's wonderful that I'm not going through that.
How was your working relationship with the new school board? Some of them said they did not receive timely information from your office when it came to the budget deficit.
I think we've been working out our styles. . . . With any relationship, when you first come in, it's really awkward because you don't exactly know what the person needs to know and what the person would like to know. . . . They were surprised at the budget overruns. That was a legitimate concern but I was surprised with budget overrruns. I was not made aware until pretty late so I didn't try to hide anything from them or not tell them anything.
You've said Prince George's is a difficult county to change because of the political atmosphere. Why's that?
Usually there is a political leader when I worked for a governor, and there was a consistency of vision and direction. Here's it's just all over the place, and this person has an idea, this person has an idea, this person has an idea. Sometimes those political leaders simply don't agree as to what the direction of the school district should be. . . . But it isn't just the county government, it's the state government. Everyone seems to have a role in managing the school district and a lot of those leaders don't want to invest in a superintendent. They'd still rather keep that power, that role, which makes this very difficult.
Do you wish you had done anything different?
I don't know. It was almost sometimes as if I were in the middle of a plot that I couldn't control. I started off pretty good relations with the General Assembly and I really worked hard at that. I just didn't know relationships as well as I thought I knew them. . . . Like any superintendent you have to learn the players. It's very difficult here. An insider who is not strong can't survive. An outsider who is too strong can't survive. So you have to be, you have to be just right, and I don't know what that is exactly.
You were often criticized for your management style. What do you think about that?
I think it was what was probably needed to change the system. You had to be tough. This isn't an easy system to change. . . . People accuse me of changing too quickly and then in the end they were saying, "Well you didn't change enough." It was a very strong criticism. The problem to me is that it will take longer than just four years to change things here and the other problem is by the end of the four years, you've made a lot of enemies. It's so easy to pick up enemies in Prince George's County . . . because you always will have critics. There's no leeway for failure.
What do you think is in store for the academic future of Prince George's County schools?
The research on closing the minority achievement gap is crystal clear.
You're going to have to put kids in additional courses. . . . You're going to have to try to rid the ranks of people who are provisionally certified. You're going to have to be strong to do that. You're going to have to do some very unpleasant things until . . . you do have some stability in terms of the instructional corps. . . . I see two years of some real difficult, difficult decisions and a lack of money to really stimulate the district."