Tale of two superintendents

Glenn McNatt

February 12, 1991|By Glenn McNatt

BY COINCIDENCE, Baltimore city and the state's only other predominantly urban and black school system, Prince George's County, will both be looking for new school superintendents this spring.

Last week the Prince George's schools chief, John A. Murphy, announced that he was leaving his post for the top job in the Charlotte, N.C., school system. Murphy reportGlennMcNattedly has also been offered the job of superintendent in Kansas City, Mo.

Meanwhile, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke asked his school board last year not to renew the contract of Superintendent Richard C. Hunter when it expires in July. Relations between the mayor and his schools chief had been strained for some time prior to the final break.

The upshot is that Baltimore and Prince George's have now joined the growing number of large, urban school systems currently in the market for new schools chiefs -- a list that includes Washington, Boston, Miami, Detroit, Houston, Memphis and Los Angeles, not to speak of smaller places such as Savannah, Ga., and Hartford, Conn. In all, some 20 major cities are vying for candidates from the same short list.

It's instructive to compare the progress of school reform efforts in Baltimore and Prince George's County. Ultimately, political pressures forced the departures of both Hunter and Murphy. But where Hunter's loss of political support can be traced to widespread perceptions that he just wasn't up to the job, in Prince George's County Murphy appears to have been a victim of his own success.

When Murphy took over the P.G. schools in the early 1980s, the system was in a trough of low student test scores, poor staff morale and lack of any clear direction. The county, which over the previous decade had experienced a large influx of middle-class blacks from neighboring Washington, was under court order to desegregate its schools, and fearful whites were abandoning the system. Murphy's charge was to turn the situation around.

So well did Murphy perform his task that over the next seven years the Prince George's County school system became of one of the nation's premier educational success stories. He won the support of local businesses with the argument that quality schools were critical to the area's continued economic development and growth.

Murphy also used funds earmarked for desegregation to create a system of highly successful magnet schools that slowed white flight and stabilized the schools' racial balance. He implemented a comprehensive staff retraining and development program that paid off in steadily rising student achievement test scores.

By contrast, school reform in Baltimore has proceeded in fits and starts. Hunter's predecessor, former Superintendent Alice G. Pinderhughes, was instrumental in helping put reform at the top of city's political agenda. In fact, Mayor Schmoke's campaign pledge to make education the No. 1 priority of his administration owes much to her tireless agitation. But Pinderhughes proved less able to follow through on her initiatives, such as "school-based management," which sought to make individual principals and teachers more accountable by giving them greater responsibility and resources from school headquarters.

Hunter was in effect hired to institutionalize the momentum for change begun under Pinderhughes. But his first moves seemed like a step backward. He launched an ambitious reorganization of the department headquarters but rejected a local initiative devised by parents at the Barclay School. That in turn helped alienate the business community, which Pinderhughes had made a point of cultivating. Finally, Hunter clashed with the mayor when Schmoke tried to limit the damage.

Thus reform efforts in the city have been effectively put on hold. Hunter's revamping of the bureaucracy was for all practical purposes undone last spring when, at Schmoke's insistence, an outsider was brought in to manage the day-to-day operation of the system. Hunter did oversee the imposition of a revised dress code aimed at cutting down violent incidents in school buildings. But that's not a lot to show for three years on the job.

Some argue Hunter wasn't given enough time. Perhaps they are right. Hunter, who is black, briefly sought the support of the local NAACP in an attempt to keep his job. But the fact that the mayor is also black undoubtedly weakened his argument that race was a factor in the school board's decision not to rehire him.

Ironically Murphy, who is white, was undone when the county tried to entice him to stay on with a 10-year contract and fat salary increase. Black county residents complained the arrangement would preclude consideration of a black superintendent until the turn of the century. The dispute deteriorated into a shouting match between the local NAACP and County Executive Parris N. Glendening, with Murphy caught in the crossfire.

Of course, the obvious solution would be for Baltimore and Prince George's to swap superintendents, with Murphy coming here and Hunter going to the county. That would really be a bold experiment in school reform. But Maryland may not be ready for it yet.

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