Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke plans to tell the Baltimore school board this morning that he wants Richard C. Hunter replaced as superintendent of schools.
It was unclear last night whether the mayor would insist on Dr. Hunter's immediate departure or whether he would allow the superintendent to serve out the remainder of a three-year contract that expires July 31.
Sources said yesterday that the mayor is trying to make Dr. Hunter's exit as graceful as possible, but that the superintendent had refused in a meeting Monday to leave quietly even though he would be paid through July. Yesterday, Mr. Schmoke appeared willing to let the superintendent stay through the end of the contract as long as the board made clear it would not be renewed.
But late last night, one of the mayor's closest political advisers was telling a political gathering that Dr. Hunter would be fired. Sentiment on the school board recently has been favoring the superintendent's retention in the name of stability, but it would be extremely unusual for board members to balk at an order from the mayor who appoints them.
The mayor reportedly has decided Dr. Hunter would be a political liability and he wants the question of his contract resolved quickly so the city has the freedom to begin searching for a replacement without embarrassing either the mayor or the superintendent.
When asked yesterday if he had tried to fire Dr. Hunter during a meeting Monday, Mayor Schmoke said, "I can't comment on that." Dr. Hunter also declined to comment on the nature of the meeting.
Through his spokesman, however, Dr. Hunter reiterated his determination to seek a renewal of his contract. His spokesman, Douglas Neilson, denied that Dr. Hunter had been told to resign.
Above all, the mayor wants to avoid any nasty bloodletting that would disrupt the school system or saddle him with unwanted baggage as he enters a campaign for re-election in the fall, those who are familiar with his thinking say.
Mayor Schmoke clearly was not pleased yesterday when reporters asked him about rumors that he had fired Dr. Hunter. He would only say that he planned to meet with the school board and that there would be an announcement later about the superintendent's status.
Mr. Schmoke was chastened last spring when black religious and community leaders rallied behind Dr. Hunter and told the mayor it was unseemly for him to publicly criticize the performance of another black leader. Since then, he has been restrained in his public comments about Dr. Hunter, as he promised he would be in a truce reached with the superintendent in April.
At that time, the mayor had by many accounts lost confidence in Dr. Hunter's ability to make substantive improvements in the troubled city school system, and the mayor began consulting community leaders about replacing Dr. Hunter.
But the superintendent dug in his heels and consulted a politically well-connected lawyer, Alan M. Rifkin, for advice. Mr. Schmoke, fearing a messy lawsuit if he tried to fire Dr. Hunter before his contract expired, backed off and agreed to a truce, allowing Dr. Hunter to keep his job in return for the promise that a high-powered deputy would be hired to run the day-to-day affairs of the 108,000-pupil school system.
Yesterday, Dr. Hunter was seen in the offices of Mr. Rifkin's law firm again.
The deputy, J. Edward Andrews Jr., was hired in May, and since then the school system appears to have run more smoothly. In fact, all seemed to be going well for the superintendent until two weeks ago, when the school board without fanfare presented its long-awaited evaluation of Dr. Hunter's performance -- giving him a "satisfactory" on a scale of unsatisfactory to excellent. The grade was widely perceived as a "C."
The grade prompted state Delegate Elijah E. Cummings, one of Dr. Hunter's staunchest supporters last spring, to reassess his support.
"I like him, I really do," Mr. Cummings said yesterday. "But when I
see that a school board that has consistently been supportive of him gave him a 'C' as far as his performance, it gives me great concern.
"I don't think our children can afford a 'C' superintendent. Our school system is in the kind of shape where we need at least a 'B-plus.' "
At the same time, the mayor has continued to receive complaints from within the school system bureaucracy that Dr. Hunter's leadership has not improved and that he remains too remote personally to inspire his employees in the difficult task of improving an urban school system.
In the wake of the evaluation, Dr. Hunter's support has been eroding. The head of the Baltimore Teachers Union said last week that there had been no visible change in classrooms since Dr. Hunter's arrival.
Although George L. Buntin, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and one of Dr. Hunter's earlier supporters, said he wanted the superintendent's contract renewed, Samuel L. Banks, an active NAACP member and a high-ranking school official, said Mr. Buntin didn't necessarily reflect the feelings of the membership.
In an interview, Dr. Banks, director of instructional support services, said, "A crisis of confidence pervades the school district. We have a community that still does not know the superintendent. There is a sense even now that he doesn't know central office people and the principals."