Talented educator rejected by board Quality of candidate to lead county schools adds fuel to criticism

March 10, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Arthur W. Steller came with impressive credentials.

As superintendent of Oklahoma City schools, he drove up test scores and swiftly turned around failing schools -- earning a coveted national award for leadership. More recently, he was the No. 2 official in Boston schools and served as superintendent for four months during a transition in leadership.

But Dr. Steller, 48, didn't make it onto the Baltimore County school board's list of finalists for the superintendency.

He wasn't interviewed. In fact, he was knocked out of consideration early, board members said, raising questions about the search.

Some critics charge privately that Dr. Steller was dismissed because he was stiff competition for interim Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, 64, the school system veteran who was named to a four-year term last week -- abruptly ending the search.

But the facts are hard to come by because of the secrecy that has surrounded the process. Board members' interview notes were kept locked away. Even a seemingly innocuous profile drafted by the board and based largely on interviews with the public -- outlining traits of a good superintendent -- was kept under wraps.

Board members said the hush-hush atmosphere was designed partly to avoid lobbying campaigns. But by keeping the candidates' names secret, they seem -- perhaps unwittingly -- to have allowed proponents of the only announced candidate -- Dr. Marchione -- to drum up support.

"I would have liked to have talked to the school board and the community there," Dr. Steller said last week from Boston, when told of accusations that the process was rigged. "I think it was a good opportunity and good school district."

Interviewed by the board in addition to Dr. Marchione were JoAnn B. Manning, head of the 7,660-student Chester Upland, Pa., district, and Jeffery N. Grotsky, chief of the 30,000-student Grand Rapids, Mich., district, who later withdrew.

Of the candidates not interviewed for the job as chief of Baltimore County's 102,000-pupil system, Dr. Steller seemed to attract the most attention from board members and the public. His 27-year record in public education is not without controversy.

In Oklahoma City, leading a district of 37,000 students, he closed seven poorly performing schools, reopening them with new staffs. That angered some teachers -- even though, within a year, six of the seven schools were off the state's "failing" list.

His detractors criticize what they call a top-down management style, and say he excluded Hispanic students from standardized tests to inflate scores. Dr. Steller disputes those charges, saying too many students with language difficulties were taking the tests, and they were excluded at the request of their parents.

But his lengthy experience, which includes superintendencies in Mercer County, W.Va., and Cobb County, Ga., has made some residents wonder why he wasn't given a closer look.

In Oklahoma City, where superintendents get one-year contracts and typically last no more than three years, Dr. Steller was rehired seven times. Enrollment in advanced placement classes boomed, and dropout and suspension rates fell. The large gap between the test scores of mostly black schools and the rest of the district shrank. He is credited with hiring top-flight administrators, many of whom have gone on to become superintendents. In that city and elsewhere, supporters praise his financial acumen.

For his accomplishments, Dr. Steller earned the American Association of School Administrators' leadership award in 1991.

In Boston, supporters credit him with raising homework requirements and opening a center to help immigrant parents through the scholastic red tape.

He decided to leave last year, shortly after Boston's former superintendent -- who hired him -- was told her contract would not be renewed. Since last month he has been special assistant to the superintendent in charge of planning the district's building projects. With two preteen sons, he said, he wants to stay at his next job at least seven years.

Although many parent and community leaders in Baltimore County are happy with Dr. Marchione's selection, some lament that they didn't get to know the other candidates. After the public rancor over the secret hiring -- and firing -- of controversial Superintendent Stuart Berger, the board pledged that the next search would be more open.

But as the school board considered the 25 candidates, it used the same method this time as the last, though more people came forward this time to make suggestions.

Consultant Maureen K. Steinecke of Laurel interviewed 24 residents and groups about the traits they wanted in a superintendent, and the board used the comments to help create a profile of an ideal leader. The profile was kept secret. Although it was based largely on community input and contained no names, the board would not release it until Dr. Marchione was picked.

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