Last Thursday, state school Superintendent Joseph L. Shilling told Gov. William Donald Schaefer he wanted to talk. Then he told the governor: "I'm leaving."
"I said, 'Gee, did we do something?' " Mr. Schaefer recalled.
Why is Dr. Shilling, first the guardian of and increasingly an instigator of Maryland's grand plan for education reform, leaving the top state education job to run nine schools in his home county of Queen Anne's?
According to Dr. Shilling, he is leaving because Queen Anne offered him the job and he wants to do it.
It's as simple as that.
He starts his new job July 1, taking a $9,000 cut in his annual pay -- from $97,421 to $88,500 -- and a 40-minute cut in his driving time.
"I think we're headed on the right road," Dr. Shilling said of the state's education programs. "And they're not going to hold that job open for me."
Dr. Shilling's resignation, submitted privately to the state Board of Education Tuesday, seemed to come out of the blue. It flabbergasted board members and supporters.
"The reaction yesterday when we learned of this was uniformly one of shock and what can we do to get Joe to stay," board President Robert C. Embry Jr. said yesterday. "But Joe had made up his mind."
"I'm crushed," said Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, an education advocate.
It's not as if the can-do, do-it-now state superintendent for the past three years is under fire.
He came in with a mission to transform a gubernatorial commission's recommendations for radical reform into reality and developed a program that outstripped the initial vision, said Walter Sondheim Jr., who headed the school reform commission.
Dr. Shilling's biggest undertaking so far, the new state test for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, has been cautiously termed a success by state officials after eight days of testing that ended yesterday. It has been surprisingly well received in schools.
His relationship with the governor, rocky in the beginning because he was the choice of a state board rebelling against Mr. Schaefer's candidates, has flourished.
Dr. Shilling says the governor has offered "invaluable support" during the superintendent's battles to build change and the governor speaks glowingly of his state superintendent.
And Dr. Shilling's agenda for reform has progressed steadily, though individual items have died or been deferred for lack of money -- particularly in the most recent legislative session. With a year left in his four-year term, he was riding high.
"In a short period he's probably accomplished more than any superintendent I can remember in recent history," said Delegate Rawlings.
But Dr. Shilling said the Queen Anne's position kindled a desire ++ to practice reform at a different level. It took him a half-hour to decide this was something he wanted to do, he said. "More than anything else, I just want to do it," he said. "I want to go back to the local school system and do it."
He was initially approached by Queen Anne's County board members for advice on conducting a search to replace retiring superintendent John E. Miller.
But Dr. Shilling became one of the 25 applicants, then was one of 11 interviewed by the board, said board Vice President William J. Rankin.
He was officially offered the job last Monday, about six weeks after his first contacts with the county board. His acceptance was announced at a Centreville news conference Tuesday.
In his resignation letter, submitted Tuesday to the state board, Dr. Shilling put it this way: "I want to become a part of a community, roll up my sleeves and work with teachers and students at the local school level. I have helped develop Schools for Success and now I want to go do it."
Said board member Joan C. Maynard: "This is Joe. He likes to be out where the action is."
The state superintendent has seen plenty of action since he took the job in July 1988, after ascending a career ladder that included six years as superintendent of Dorchester County Schools and eight years as deputy state superintendent.
According to the governor, Dr. Shilling admitted to a level of combat fatigue after three years of pushing dramatic and costly changes -- such as the controversial new tests -- in the face of resistance from teacher unions, school administrators and budget planners.
"He said 'I'm just tired of fighting to try to get my programs in operation,' " Mr. Schaefer recounted. "He told me he's tired. He just wants to go back to being a county superintendent."
Dr. Shilling acknowledged that a big plus in his new position will be greater freedom to bring about change.
"That's the basic appeal," he said. "I think [the governor] understands probably better than anyone I've talked to what it's like to go from being a mayor where you have hands-on ability to work with people to going to the state where you have less of that hands-on ability." That shift is parallel to the difference between local school districts and the state superintendency, he said.