Ethics violation, strife shadow city school candidates

April 05, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh

Baltimore school board members searching for a new school superintendent must grapple with controversies littering the pasts of some of their leading candidates -- ranging from an ethics violation to departures from their previous jobs that were marked by strife and rancor.

Some candidacies may already be faltering.

One candidate, William G. Sykes, a former president of the Maryland Board of Education, was convicted in December of violating an Ohio ethics law. At least one Baltimore school board member said the court decision gave him pause.

"In view of the fact that there is a conviction and it has been such a recent event, my reaction is to simply tell you that I would oppose considering a person with that kind of background," Stelios Spiliadis said.

The board vice president said board members were not aware of the details of the case when they included Mr. Sykes, Maryland's first black state board president, in a group of semifinalists chosen at a secret meeting Monday night. Mr. Spiliadis said he learned more about the case the day after the meeting.

Mr. Sykes pleaded no contest in an Ohio municipal court to a misdemeanor charge of failing to disclose that he was a state employee while contracting for more than $400,000 in state business. A judge suspended a 30-day jail sentence and ordered him to pay a $1,000 fine.

The case was politically motivated, said Mr. Sykes, who resigned his state job as chairman of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission in February. He was an appointee of former Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste, a Democrat, who was replaced by Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich.

"It was a technical failure to submit a form," Mr. Sykes said. "Nobody has filed such a form in eight years. It was not coincidental that it happened at the time of a change in administration."

Mr. Sykes, who runs a Columbus, Ohio, consulting firm, said in aphone interview that he mentioned the ethics issue in a letter applying for the Baltimore job. He said he could not recall if he detailed the conviction.

Mr. Sykes is among about 10 semifinalists selected Monday night who -- along with several applicants from within the school system -- will make up the pool of potential finalists, said Robert G. Wendland, the city's deputy personnel director. Board members have yet to narrow the list of internal applicants and meanwhile are investigating the backgrounds of the outside applicants, Mr. Wendland said.

The board hopes to choose three or four finalists sometime next week, with a goal of selecting the next superintendent by May 1, Mr. Wendland said.

Superintendent Richard C. Hunter's three-year contract expires July 31. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke decided in December against keeping Dr. Hunter as the head of the 110,000-student system.

Several other applicants come with varying degrees of past controversy:

* When Norward Roussell, the first black superintendent in Selma, Ala., lost his position in December 1989, the decision sparked a five-week sit-in at City Hall and a $10 million racial discrimination suit by Dr. Roussell. Board members said the superintendent had a dictatorial management style. Dr. Roussell dropped the suit in May 1990 in return for a cash settlement. He declined to comment yesterday.

* Charles M. Bernardo left the superintendency of Montgomery County in 1979 after an election in which conservative school board candidates vowed to oust him. When those candidates won, Dr. Bernardo appealed their decision in court but lost and then agreed to a buyout. In 1982 he was named Utah's school superintendent, but the state changed its mind after a public outcry. Dr. Bernardo released the board in exchange for a $31,500 settlement. Dr. Bernardo now lives in Florida. He could not be reached for comment.

* Laval S. Wilson lasted five years as Boston's first black superintendent, longer than any other superintendent in two dec

ades, but he lost support of the 13-member school board last February. He accepted a $260,000 buyout after a heated controversy.

* Leonard M. Britton announced he was leaving Los Angeles last year after a bitter teacher strike that many thought damaged his superintendency. His announcement precipitated a decision by the school board to buy out his contract last June, a year before it was due to expire. Dr. Britton is an educational consultant in rTC Los Angeles.

Conflicts between school boards and superintendents are common and not necessarily a sign of a flawed administrator, said Gary Marx, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"Education exists in a political arena," Mr. Marx said. "What you really need to look at is the match between that superintendent and the educational needs of that community."

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