Schmoke tells city school board to get rid of Hunter 'We need a unifier,' mayor declares

December 20, 1990|By Kathy Lally

Accusing Richard C. Hunter of impeding improvement in Baltimore's troubled school system, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke gave the school board yesterday five days to arrange the terms of Dr. Hunter's departure and said he wanted quick action on hiring a "unifier" to replace him.

In an extraordinarily candid and forceful statement, Mayor Schmoke said he doubted Dr. Hunter's ability to run the schools. He asserted that the superintendent had leaked details of Mr. Schmoke's efforts to persuade Dr. Hunter to leave quietly at the expiration of his contract. He said Dr. Hunter's approach to school reform was the direct opposite of his own.

"We need a unifier," Mr. Schmoke said. "We need someone to bring all the diverse elements together."

The mayor said he wanted the school board to act quickly to find a replacement, avoiding the kind of national search that found Dr. Hunter.

"Let's be creative," he said. "We don't have to look within the fraternity of superintendents. The state of Maryland had a very good superintendent in David Hornbeck, who is a lawyer."

Dr. Hunter was said to be in Washington yesterday attending a meeting and was not available for comment. Instead, he issued a prepared statement saying he was "shocked and saddened by the recent action of the mayor."

"I hope that the mayor and the board will reflect on the progress that we have made and will change the present plan to remove the current leadership of the school system," Dr. Hunter said.

At his news conference yesterday, the normally low-key Mr. Schmoke spoke with intensity and passion as he described numerous ways in which Dr. Hunter, who had been the mayor's personal choice for superintendent, had disappointed him over the last 2 1/2 years -- and over the last 36 hours by refusing to leave quietly.

"There has been progress," Mr. Schmoke said. "But much of the progress has been in spite of Dr. Hunter, not because of him. I have been very involved in the school system."

He said he told Dr. Hunter early in November that "it would be best if he did not ask for a new contract."

The superintendent's three-year, $125,000-a-year contract expires July 31. Technically, Dr. Hunter works for the school board, but the mayor appoints the board members and they rarely if ever defy him.

The mayor said Dr. Hunter rejected the suggestion that he not seek a new contract and instead asked to meet with him. The two men met from 10 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall. Mr. Schmoke said he repeated his request that Dr. Hunter not seek a new contract; Dr. Hunter repeated his refusal to bow out.

Mr. Schmoke said he had been seeking a quiet agreement, one in which Dr. Hunter would leave at the end of his contract without causing unpleasant public debates over the schools and their leadership. The mayor faces a re-election campaign in the fall. During his last campaign, he promised to improve education in the city. He could not afford to look as if no progress was being made, but he did not want to antagonize supporters of Dr. Hunter.

But Dr. Hunter's acquiescence was only one of the mayor's problems.

Sources said the mayor had met with the school board earlier this fall. The mayor thought he made it clear he didn't want Dr. Hunter's contract renewed, the sources said, but within a few days a majority of board members were saying the superintendent ought to be given more time to prove himself.

Two weeks ago, the board gave Dr. Hunter a satisfactory evaluation, interpreted as a "C." Then last week, sources said, the board privately voted 6-2 to renew the contract, with one member abstaining. The vote broke down along racial lines, with the six black members voting to keep Dr. Hunter. Another vote was taken and two of the board's three white members changed to side with the majority to avoid the appearance of racial discord. The vote was 8-1 to renew the contract.

The superintendent may have felt confident he had the board behind him when he approached the mayor Monday and fought to keep his job. The mayor apparently felt he couldn't delay any longer. He met with the school board at 8:30 a.m. yesterday. When members of the board emerged an hour later, there were no signs they were going to buck the mayor.

"We have to work out the logistics," said Joseph L. Smith, the board president. And then, as if repeating what he had just heard, he said, "We're looking at what happens in the future, not what happens in the past."

Later, Mr. Schmoke said he had decided to reappoint one of the three board members whose terms are expiring this month. He hadn't decided about the other two. There was little doubt about how the one sure reappointee had voted.

After the board members left, the mayor entered the magnificent Victorian Ceremonial Room at City Hall to sign a bill providing a cap on the property tax. After the ceremony, he looked solemnly at homeowners who were visiting for the event. "You might want to leave," the mayor told them, with the look of a man who was setting up a guillotine.

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