County schools avoid all this

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

December 20, 1990|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

It is enough to make you weep.

In 1976, when Joshua R. Wheeler retired after seven years as superintendent of Baltimore County schools, civic groups all over the county celebrated his tenure.

Wheeler then served as an ex-officio member of the school board, which is an honor afforded all retiring superintendents there. He acted as a consultant for the city, and later still, County Executive Dennis F. Rassmussen called him to lead the county's planning board. Wheeler's successor, Robert Y. Dubel, has been superintendent now for 14 years.

When Thomas Goedeke, a former teacher in Baltimore, stepped down after 16 years at the top of the Howard County school system, a reporter found him in his office, puffing contentedly on his pipe.

"I am proud to say," said Goedeke (puff, puff) "that we have built" (puff) "one of the finest school systems in the state here."

Goedeke then went on to a quiet, congenial retirement and his successor, Michael E. Hickey, has been superintendent for seven years now and counting.

And in 1984, when Edward J. Feeney stepped down after eight years at the helm in Prince George's County, an editorial in the Washington Post began, "Were he merely an institutional savior . . ." and went uphill from there.

John A. Murphy succeeded Feeney as superintendent, by the way, and has enjoyed the post for eight years, although recently, he reportedly has developed itchy feet despite county-wide pleas that he stay.

Superintendents in Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties also enjoyed comparatively happy tenures and dignified departures.

Meanwhile, in the city, turmoil and dissension continue to reign supreme.

Poor Baltimore has gone through three superintendents since the early 1970s and each one has been reviled, humiliated and forcibly ejected from office.

Just yesterday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke revealed that he is sick and tired of Richard C. Hunter, the current superintendent of schools, and he wants him out of sight, out of mind, and, above all, out of his current post as soon as his contract expires in July.

In fact, I doubt Hunter will last even that long.

"I must tell you," said Schmoke fiercely, "that any progress that has been made in our schools . . . has been in spite of Dr. Hunter, not because of him."

Believe me, it is enough to make you weep.

You could argue that comparing urban and suburban school systems is like comparing apples and oranges -- and you'd be right.

However, let's not overlook the fact that suburban schools also have been rocked by potentially divisive changes over the past couple of decades: rapid population growth, urbanization, integration.

Suburban systems, like the city, have had to cope with disintegrating families, drug abuse, violence and falling test scores. There are many in the suburbs who are just as unhappy with their schools as city residents are with theirs.

The main difference has been in resources. Suburban systems have enjoyed a growing tax base. The city's has plummeted.

But greater still has been the political climate in which educators work.

Through all the turmoil, the focus in the suburbs seemingly has been on educating the children.

In the city, since the early 1970s, the three superintendents who preceded Hunter have been embroiled in one political firestorm after another. Those three superintendents -- Roland Patterson, John Crew and Alice Pinderhughes -- have been either fired or forced to resign. There have been personality conflicts, power struggles and fights over educational philosophies.

Each and every one of them has been accused of being a poor manager, although heavens knows it is hard to manage during a period of plummeting resources.

So now, it is Hunter's turn: The same old story, the same old complaints, the same old turmoil all over again.

The mayor appears to have serious problems with the man he pushed as superintendent so enthusiastically 2 1/2 years ago and so, I suppose, one or the other will have to go.

But let me tell you something: Schmoke got a whole lot of people excited when he promised a renaissance in education.

But today, faced with the prospect of yet another long search for a replacement, and the certainty that the new man or woman will be unable to work miracles, we can say this about the mayor: He let us down. He let us down badly.

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