Iris T. Metts is back in the bind she thought she had escaped -- forced to prove that her critics are wrong and that she's the right person to turn around Prince George's County's troubled public schools.
If civility is a telling measurement, the pressures bearing down on Metts are less intense than they were last year, when the county schools chief feuded with the elected Board of Education, was abruptly fired in February and then made a Houdini-like political escape. She not only held onto her position, but watched as state legislators abolished the school board and appointed a new panel that gave her a fresh start, a pay raise, a lofty title and 12 months to win over the doubters.
"It was not that Dr. Metts was perfect or was right. What was apparent is that you couldn't judge her . . . because of the bickering," said Rushern L. Baker III, a former state delegate who was instrumental in ousting the elected school board. "Once you separate that out, you get a reprieve. Then you must go and prove yourself."
Halfway through the school year, redemption has proved elusive. With the school board set to decide in April whether Metts should stay or go, even loyal supporters privately worry that she hasn't learned enough from past mistakes.
In recent months, some of the new board members have complained about not getting information in a timely manner, a criticism often voiced by the old board. "Sometimes we don't get [information] until a few days before that decision needs to be made," said board member Dean Sirjue (Bowie). "In Dr. Metts's defense, the information may not be ready, but that has been a bit of a problem."
There are other problems: Prince George's students continue to struggle on standardized tests. A long-awaited effort to restructure the magnet program was delayed after Metts submitted a plan and then withdrew it under pressure from parents. Her reporting of a budget deficit, which ballooned from $7.5 million to $15 million, raised questions about fiscal management.
Longtime opponents, meanwhile, are quick to call for her departure.
"I think we need new leadership," said state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Hyattsville). "I think there have been some missteps, and we've never recovered."
Metts, 60, said she wants to stay on and sign a new contract, at times displaying the proudly defiant nature that helped her survive a year ago. "I feel that the job is not finished," she said.
Metts points to her efforts to reform the 135,000-student school system: She started all-day kindergarten and mandatory summer school for elementary-age students, increased the amount of time spent on reading and math instruction, focused on making incremental gains on a national basic-skills test and cracked down on the number of uncertified teachers.
Her supporters also note that Prince George's superintendents, past and present, have been stymied by a dearth of money -- in part because of a voter-imposed cap on property taxes. In addition, though Prince George's is one of the nation's most affluent majority-black counties, there are pockets of poverty that create a challenging landscape for educational success.
Under these circumstances, Metts's allies question whether the school board can find anyone who has a better track record in a diverse urban school system, which makes predicting her fate a risky proposition.
"I've been very supportive of her and I think she's done right by us, and if she stays she will continue to do right by us," said County Council Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood). "I think she's very competent and very effective."
When the appointed school board took office last summer, Metts and her new bosses signaled that the days of public bickering would be over. In their place would be a focus on improving academic performance. They would iron out differences in private and work together to boost the county's image, which is inextricably tied to its public schools.
The message: Metts, who was lured to Prince George's County nearly four years ago with impressive credentials as Delaware's secretary of education, would get to show what she could accomplish with fewer distractions.
But the same legislative action that resulted in the removal of the elected school board requires that the appointed panel conduct a nationwide search for a new chief executive officer -- the new title Metts was given.
Which explains why critical comments from state lawmakers such as Pinsky trouble her.
"That's a strange reaction from them, because they obviously wrote a law that allowed me to continue," Metts said. "They certainly put in a new board. They certainly told them it was up to them to decide. . . . The people who wrote the law ought to respect it, too. They shouldn't interfere with the search."
Next month, the county school board will interview candidates recruited by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education's superintendent search service. Finalists for the $250,000-a-year position are expected to be named by March, with a selection coming a month later.
School board members tiptoe around the subject of Metts's future. For the record, they will say only that her application will be considered along with the others they receive. "Dr. Metts will not be treated unfairly or subjectively," said board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro).
The board has spelled out what it is looking for in a chief executive: a bold reformer, a team player, a consensus builder and an effective communicator. Yet parents, state lawmakers, county officials and even a few on the board acknowledge that Metts has weaknesses in some of those areas.
Metts and the new board members admit that they have had to adjust to each other. There were times this fall when reporters delivered news to board members before Metts did. Often, information would change rapidly and board members would have a hard time keeping up with the changes.
"We could have gotten things maybe a little bit more timely and maybe in a little bit more depth than we got it," said school board member Robert O. Duncan (Laurel). "But at this juncture, I don't see that as an inability to work with folks."
Metts worsened her already strained relationship with school principals when she chastised them for failing to follow proper procedures when hiring temporary teachers. They accused her of using them as scapegoats.
Metts also surprised school board members when she told them to expect a $7.5 million budget deficit for the fiscal year that ended in June -- and then doubled that figure this month. She said overhiring by principals was largely to blame for the deficit, a statement she later backed away from after criticism from principals and some board members.
In response to the deficit, board members asked Metts to deliver more frequent financial reports. But an audit by a Washington accounting firm that was due at the end of September was delayed several times because, Metts said, her staff did not have the necessary technology to provide the auditors with all the information they needed.
"We've been given too many assurances that ended up not materializing," Duncan said in a December interview after Metts failed to deliver the audit. "It's about competence in getting things done."
He added: "We're paying for professionals here. It's complicated and it's tough, but this is the big leagues."
After school board members received the audit this month, Tignor softened the criticism. "We have worked through most of our concerns in terms of timeliness," she said. "People wanted more information so that they can make comfortable and sound decisions."
On the academic front, Metts's detractors say she has failed to boost student performance. Since she arrived in July 1999, scores on SAT college-entrance exams and the now-scrapped but once-significant Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams either have remained stagnant or dropped.
Despite the setbacks, board members say they are pleased with what they have accomplished so far but they acknowledge that the school system is not where it should be.
"Am I happy with every decision that has been made? No," said board member Judy Mickens-Murray (Upper Marlboro). "Am I happy with the direction I see us going in? No. . . . I think we can do better."
Metts's predecessors, Jerome Clark and Edward M. Felegy, were frustrated in their efforts to improve the county's schools, and they left when their contracts were not renewed. Metts was supposed to be different. She was an outsider who could implement the drastic reforms needed to fix the system.
She quickly learned, though, that she couldn't make decisions in a vacuum. Board members, state legislators, parent activists, county officials and union leaders all had a stake in what she did, and they wouldn't let her forget it.
"There's a real difficult political atmosphere in the county," Metts said. "You've instituted some reform, but you've instituted it at the price of upsetting people. It's a difficult school system to change."
But it can be done, Metts said. She has plans to improve the high schools, reassess the district's grading policy and increase the amount of time minority students spend on instruction.
"For the past four years, I've been the most stable element of leadership in this school district," she said. "You need that sometimes. People need a rudder to hold on to."