New president's board seat uncertain

July 14, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Paul Cunningham went to Tuesday night's Baltimore County school board meeting as a five-year member whose term had expired.

He came home as school board president. And a little surprised.

"I should've worn a suit," he told fellow board members moments after taking office.

Mr. Cunningham still hasn't been reappointed. That's up to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, but the soft-spoken, 53-year-old college professor was elected president by fellow board members who didn't let the uncertainty over his tenure stop them.

"Paul had expressed an interest, and the board members have confidence in him," said Allan M. Leberknight, a banker who decided unexpectedly to step down as president last weekend because of professional demands.

Mr. Leberknight, who will remain on the board, said members did consider Mr. Cunningham's uncertain status. "We had to weigh that. We certainly didn't want to penalize Paul. What if he's reappointed next week?"

Joseph Harrison, a spokesman for the governor, said Mr. Schaefer will probably decide Mr. Cunningham's fate and make three other Baltimore County school board appointments within 10 days.

For his part, Mr. Cunningham looks on his tenuous situation with a sense of history. "William Henry Harrison served 30 days as U.S. president. Maybe I'll be school board president for the shortest time," he said.

The Catonsville Community College social studies professor calls himself "a people person, dealing with individuals. That's my training, as a social scientist."

He said the school board must continue to pay attention to

communication -- one of its admitted failings during a turbulent year.

"When we start something new, we must let people know what it is we are doing and when we are going to do it. If people know ahead of time what we are trying to do, then, hopefully, they will buy in," he said.

At board meetings, Mr. Cunningham speaks slowly and deliberately as he asks questions and makes comments, usually about the educational impact of the board's decisions. It's an orientation that reflects more than 25 years as an educator.

"My first love has always been teaching," said the Catonsville resident, who grew up in West Virginia and attended a one-room schoolhouse. He has been a social studies professor at CCC since 1968, teaching American history, Western civilization, geography and creative thinking.

"I have more degrees than a thermometer," he quipped, citing one bachelor's degree, two master's and enough course work at The Catholic University for a doctorate, although he never finished his dissertation in education administration.

Governor Schaefer appointed him to the board in the summer of 1989, choosing him over an incumbent who had more votes from the county's School Board Nominating Convention.

Mr. Cunningham, whose three grown children all attended county schools, said visiting schools is an essential part of his board work, and he does it frequently.

"I tend to just look at my schedule and if I'm free I just visit a couple of schools," he said. "I talk to teachers and students. I go unannounced. I'm generally well-received."

"He knows the schools," said former board member Hilda Hillman. "In that respect, Paul Cunningham is going to be outstanding. He's a very competent person."

The new president has high praise for the county's teachers, who "just go into the classroom and do what needs to be done," he said.

PTC Despite the presence of criticism, he said, county schools are "on the right track." He concedes that some of Superintendent Stuart Berger's changes over the last two years -- particularly the sudden inclusion of disabled students in neighborhood schools and the switch to site-based management -- came too quickly and "created a tremendous amount of concern."

But he said the school board is as responsible as Dr. Berger.

"We must learn from that," he said. "We need to do better with involving people in anything we do new. We need to step back and see where we are and what we've learned from the first two years [of Dr. Berger's tenure]."

Mr. Cunningham takes the helm at a much quieter time than did his predecessor, Mr. Leberknight, who is president of the Bank of Baltimore. Last July, when Mr. Leberknight was elected, the board was besieged by angry parents, teachers and politicians who said it was arrogant and unresponsive.

One of Mr. Leberknight's first acts was to appoint a task force to study two of the most controversial changes -- the inclusion process and the involuntary transfer of about 40 administrators. He also set about talking and listening to critics in order to calm the furor and restore confidence in the schools.

"Allan Leberknight was terrific. He brought the board through what was perhaps its most difficult time ever. He allowed us to turn down the volume," said Sanford V. Teplitzky, who chaired the task force and in November was appointed to the board.

"I see Paul Cunningham as the logical next president," Mr. Teplitzky said. "I think he's seen as open and fair. He has a very strong teaching background. I see it as a positive development."

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