Her push to end busing for desegregation got her labeled a "turncoat." Her support of charter schools consistently has drawn criticism from public school supporters. And her proposal to eliminate ninth-grade sports in one school district ended with a protest by 600 angry parents, including one man who waved a blank check to illustrate how cheap she was.
Iris T. Metts didn't change her position in any of those cases. "But, heck yeah, I took that guy's check," she recalled recently with a laugh.
Metts, 56, who was named Prince George's County school superintendent last week, has consistently staked out controversial ground that might have sunk a less-popular educator during her 30-year career. But she also has demonstrated enough charm and political savvy to pull her through -- whether it be as a teacher, principal, superintendent or in her most recent job as Delaware's education secretary.
When she assumes her new office July 6, she'll need every bit of those skills because she will be entering an arena in which politics and distrust have built to a level she likely has not encountered before.
Metts, the county's first female and second African American superintendent, succeeds Jerome Clark at a time when there is broad concern over the management of the state's largest system. Prince George's has Maryland's highest proportion of provisionally certified teachers and second-lowest average standardized test scores, behind Baltimore.
State leaders threatened a takeover in the spring; the county executive refused pleas by school officials for more money to help stem a teacher shortage because he said the system hasn't proved it will spend the money wisely; and a state-appointed panel monitoring reform efforts has consistently criticized the system's failure to implement hundreds of measures suggested in an audit last summer.
Metts said her first order of business will be "untangling the different factions. There are too many hands in the pie."
But it won't be easy. Loyalties and alliances, as well as feuds, run deep in Prince George's. A third of the nine-member school board voted not for Metts but for another candidate who had long ties to County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D). Two days after her appointment, Metts still had not heard from Curry, who was on vacation when school officials introduced her in Upper Marlboro on Thursday.
"I already have had people say, `Do you know what you're getting into, Iris?' I fully understand," Metts said. "I have not left any job without being able to say it was in better shape than when I got there. And I don't intend for Prince George's to be the bad mark on my record."
Metts will face the challenge of phasing out 26 years of court-ordered busing that was ended last summer by a federal judge. Part of the agreement calls for building 13 schools in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods over the next six years -- an economic challenge for a system that also must find funds to mend many decaying buildings at the same time.
Not only that, the state-mandated management oversight panel is demanding that the pace of reform quicken. And the county must hire 1,400 teachers by mid-August and somehow find a way to reduce the number of uncertified teachers.
Metts remains undaunted. She said she intends to "work the management oversight panel out of a job," survey parents to gauge their satisfaction of the system and improve its relationship with the media by eliminating what she said is a culture of "fear" in the central administration. She wants to launch a new era of full disclosure in which specific goals are laid out publicly and measurements are taken of success and failure in the 128,000-student system.
She plans to bring in four trusted advisers to oversee the transition from Clark's administration to hers, and she expects to have an "action plan" within two weeks of her arrival spelling out major changes.
"What I want to do is to make it more doable and zero in on those things that really need attention," she said.
During her career, Metts has demonstrated a willingness to reach out.
She won quick praise upon taking over as superintendent of the Christina, Del., School District in 1990. The 20,000-student district was in a financial crisis, and it appeared that it might not be able to make payroll. But Metts formed a citizens task force that helped her restructure the central office, open the books and put in new spending rules. She also cut some programs, including ninth-grade sports, for which, she said, "I learned my lesson: People care about sports. But I felt that if we were cutting academic programs, sports had to take a cut, too."
Supporters say she is an educational visionary who believes that all children can improve their performance given creative programs to help them do it. As Christina's superintendent, she developed magnet schools and an after-school tutoring program for struggling students, touted a year-round school plan and backed charter schools.
But critics say her ideas sometimes sound better than they actually work. One Delaware leader once said her office "was like an idea-of-the-week club" of which only a few panned out. Three of Christina's six magnet schools are struggling with low enrollment. The tutoring program died after a year because of a lack of funding, and her ideas for year-round school and charter schools never caught on.
"I think some of it was a good concept, but she was probably too visionary," Christina school board member Michael J. Guilfoyle said. "She thought that by running the flag up, everyone was going to salute it."
Metts concedes that her follow-through was not as good as it could have been in some areas. She said that in retrospect, "I probably created too many magnet schools," and that the programs suffered because she left Christina in 1995, only two years after they were created, to become Gov. Thomas R. Carper's education secretary.
Her desire to begin the magnet schools was born from her strong belief that Christina's two-decades-old system of court-ordered busing was no longer necessary.
She thought that Christina -- where 70 percent of the students are white and 30 percent black -- was focusing too much on busing and not enough on academic excellence.
So she testified against busing before a federal judge in 1995, angering many black activists and the NAACP chapter.
"Being an African American, she was getting hit from the other side that she was selling out," recalls her deputy superintendent, Franklin A. Rishel. "That was something she had to endure."
But Metts, the product of a segregated school system herself while growing up in Richmond, was sure of her position. She had read the court decisions in other jurisdictions that said busing was causing more problems for blacks than benefits. And she had taken steps to prepare for the day when there would no longer be a desegregation order.
She championed a bond referendum that raised $85 million for repairs to older, urban buildings. And she flew to other cities with a citizens group she commissioned to study magnet programs, which she believed would persuade parents to integrate schools voluntarily.
"Times had changed," Metts said. "It was not 1964. It was 1995, and we were entering a new century, and it was time to do something new. There was a new agenda for African Americans and everyone else, a post-desegregation agenda. That agenda is academic excellence."
Metts's stance on race is that it no longer serves a purpose in discussing academics. Rather, one should discuss class and other disadvantages, she said.
That's not to say Metts never believed race was a barrier. After attending all-black schools as a child, then going to all-black Hampton University, she said, she was arrested while staging a sit-in with peers at a diner in 1963.
"My dad almost had a heart attack," she said, chuckling at the recollection of her father, who is now 82 and still in Richmond. "Here he was, paying all this money for me to go to college, and I was following this guy named Martin Luther King."
Metts's parents divorced when she was in college, and her mother, she discovered later in life, was a longtime alcoholic. Part of her drive, she said, was born from believing that if she was successful, her mother would stop drinking. But her mother didn't, and she died 10 years ago at age 59.
Metts spent 23 years working in the Richmond schools, first as a science and math teacher, then as a vice principal, principal and central office administrator. Then it was on to a high-level job with the Evanston, Ill., school system from 1987 to 1990, when she left for Christina.
When she joined Carper's cabinet in 1997, Delaware already had begun developing a series of major education reforms, including the creation of a test designed to hold students and schools to a higher standard.
She joined the fray within days of taking office. The state Board of Education already had drawn up an outline for its new standardized test and was seeking bids from vendors. Metts yanked back the bid request -- the test, she said, needed more multiple-choice questions that would allow comparisons with students in other states.
Metts finally crafted a kind of compromise, allowing the test to have both the written-response requirements that educators preferred and the multiple-choice questions that legislators wanted to see, thus ensuring the General Assembly would fund the testing.
"It was rather shocking," then-board member Nancy A. Doorey said of Metts's first act in office. "She's that kind of leader, who will go out on a limb and stake her ground."
CAPTION: Iris T. Metts faces political and financial challenges as well as educational ones in her new job leading the Prince George's County public school system.