Schools chief search faulted Balto. County groups want public process

March 03, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Parents, teachers and community leaders are calling for Baltimore County to open up its school superintendent search -- a process so secretive that even board members' interview notes are locked up out of their reach.

The PTA Council, the NAACP and residents have raised questions about the cloak of secrecy -- especially after the names of three finalists were published last week. And critics note that the board's last search -- also conducted out of public view -- yielded a controversial superintendent who was dismissed with a year remaining in his contract.

"We're continuing to ask them to be open about the process," said Elizabeth A. Crosby, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County, which wants the board to allow community groups to interview the candidates. "It's important to us that it's not closed and done in complete secret. The more information they give, the better we're able to make judgments."

Several school board members defend the search and note it is following common practice in Maryland, where state law guarantees confidentiality to school system applicants unless they agree to disclosure. Those members say the promise of confidentiality -- until a superintendent is named -- is the way to draw the most qualified contenders.

But many localities -- including some in Maryland -- release finalists' names, and even allow the public to interview them.

Douglass W. Gordon, a Washington consultant who conducts superintendent searches nationwide, said his firm usually promises confidentiality until the semifinalist or finalist stage.

"At that point most communities are so very interested in the process, and it's very difficult to maintain confidentiality because those people are coming for interviews with the board," said Mr. Gordon, director of executive search services at The McKenzie Group Inc.

Without commenting on the Baltimore County search, he added, "I think most boards feel at that stage the public should know. And one of the advantages of doing it that way is that the board could learn more about the finalists than they already know."

Of the 25 Baltimore County applicants, three have been interviewed for the job of leading the 102,000-student district.

County interim Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione and JoAnn Manning, superintendent of the 7,660-student Chester Upland, Pa., district are the leading contenders. A third, Jeffery N. Grotsky, withdrew Thursday, partly because a pledge of confidentiality was broken with the publication of the finalists' names.

Leaders of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have called on the board to explain its choices.

At the beginning of the search, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, which, along with the administrators organization, has endorsed Dr. Marchione, asked the board to release the names of finalists.

Fueling the sentiment for openness for some residents are still-fresh wounds from the tenure of former Superintendent Stuart D. Berger, hired in secret four years ago and dismissed in secret last summer -- with a $300,000 buyout. The board was criticized for its actions, including unannounced weekend meetings in members' homes.

"All the conflict afterward would seem to indicate that the next time it ought to be a more public process," said teachers association President Ray Suarez.

Board President Calvin D. Disney said last fall that the current search would be more open than the last. But the method used is the same this time, according to consultant Maureen K. Steinecke.

At the beginning, she interviewed residents about the qualities they want in a new superintendent. School board members reviewed candidates' resumes and other documents at board President Calvin Disney's office, but they were asked not to take notes and paperwork home.

Board members defended the system.

When boards release names, "it unfortunately becomes a beauty contest," board Vice President Paul S. Cunningham said.

"If you don't guarantee the confidentiality, you're likely to have qualified candidates not even be interested," said board member Sanford V. Teplitzky.

As for the PTA's suggestion to allow community groups to interview candidates, he said, "Who gets more input? Do you let everybody vote?

"We have a statutory obligation to make this decision. It would be inappropriate to delegate our responsibility to anyone other than the 12 people on the board."

Baltimore City released finalists' names during its last superintendent search in 1991, then allowed community groups to interview the candidates, as did Wicomico County in 1994. Howard County's school board announced the two finalists in its last search.

But most Maryland school boards keep their lists confidential to the end, said Susan R. Buswell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

School districts around the nation have vastly different systems.

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