School Board Needs To Grow A Spine

COMMENT

February 13, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

It shouldn't take a Rhodes scholar to figure out what's wrong with this picture:

Two hundred Northeast High parents, students, former students and teachers are gathered in the school's auditorium, arguing over how to rescue the school from the nightmare of Ron Price.

Sitting in the back row is Anne Arundel County school board member Joseph Foster. He and student representative Desira St. Pierre are the only board members present. Neither says anything throughout the course of the two-hour meeting.

At least they were there. Where was the rest of the board? Wouldn't you think that a meeting about the aftermath of the biggest crisis in school system history would be worth two hours of their time? For that matter, wouldn't you expect them to be running this meeting, instead of a PTA leader?

You know what's wrong with the Anne Arundel Board of Education? It isn't that its members don't care about children, parents or the well-being of our schools. I'm sure they do.

But actions speak louder than words. And when it comes to action, this board leaves the unmistakable impression that it couldn't give a fig about the concerns and opinions of the people it is supposed to serve.

The board members listen nicely to what people have to say, then pat them on the head, tell them they'll "take it under advisement," and send them on their way. They never take a clear position on difficult issues. They don't know how to reassure, inspire confidence or lead. They act as though, more than anything in the world, they wish problems would simply evaporate. They have shown this kind of weakness since the day Price was arrested.

No one needs to be reminded what a furor that caused. A male teacher admitting he's been having sex with students for 20 years, then going on Geraldo! to share the gory details is not exactly a problem that is going to blow away with the weather. Yet board members failed even to make a general statement of outrage; they gave no sign that they understood a crisis of major proportions was under way.

In the ensuing months, their strategy basically consisted of ignoring the turmoil around them. While television crews were camped outside Northeast on a daily basis, it never occurred to them that the community might need special help. When more teachers were arrested, they had no comment.

When a state investigation showed that high-ranking school officials had known about Price, the board again missed an opportunity to express outrage and a commitment to get to the bottom of things. Each of them made the same comment: "No comment."

Now here we are in the middle of February, two months after investigator Alan I. Baron completed a report on the Price scandal and made recommendations for cleaning up this mess. The board has accepted the report, but, in typical fashion, has little to say about what it intends to do.

Some of the suggestions in the Baron report -- such as transferring teachers every few years and removing Northeast Principal Joseph Carducci -- are highly controversial and of great concern to people throughout the local education community.

If board members had been wise, they would have wasted no time scheduling both a countywide hearing on the report and a meeting with Northeast parents. Such actions would have shown they cared not just about fixing whatever is wrong but about what other people think.

Instead, their refusal to lead has created a power vacuum that is being filled by various pro- and anti-Baron factions -- a phenomenon that has the potential to do real damage, especially at Northeast.

Because the board refused to arrange a meeting on the Baron report, Carolyn Roeding, president of the County Council of PTAs, finally did. But the outspoken Mrs. Roeding does not speak for everyone in the community, including the local PTSA leaders. Right now, their major disagreement involves Dr. Carducci; the council of PTAs thinks he should be removed, the PTSA wants him to stay. Inevitably, Monday's meeting -- billed as forum on the entire Baron report -- devolved into a pointless diatribe on Dr. Carducci and the school in general.

Things could have been different had the board been running the show. For one thing, the board, unlike Mrs. Roeding, would have had authority to set and stick to an agenda so an informational meeting didn't turn into a pep rally. For another, the board could have quelled the factionalism by giving some idea of its position on sensitive matters such as the Carducci issue. Yes, is a confidential personnel matter. But simply by saying, "Dr. Carducci remains the principal of Northeast and we support him" or, "The Baron report suggests we look at possibility of his removal and we have agreed to follow the report," the board could indicate which way the wind is blowing -- without violating any personnel laws.

The board needs to grow a spine. It needs to learn to take a position and hold it.

If it promises a national search for a new superintendent, it should follow through. If it has a good reason for changing its mind and choosing someone from within, then let it explain its reasoning in plain, strong terms.

The board needs to learn how to lead as well as listen. Maybe that's the next thing it ought to take under advisement.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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