Friction marked Balto. Co. search School chief selection process leaves board member 'disappointed'

March 17, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Robert F. Dashiell drove up the hill to Baltimore County school headquarters the night of March 5 expecting a lengthy discussion about his favorite candidate for superintendent, JoAnn B. Manning.

There was little reason to suspect otherwise.

A school board delegation had returned only hours earlier from a two-day visit to Dr. Manning's school district Chester Upland, Pa. Surely the board would want to consider what the group had learned about the woman who, most agreed, had performed so well in her interview, the board member thought.

But soon after the delegation made its presentation, it became clear to him that supporters of the interim superintendent already planned a vote.

Another board member, Dunbar Brooks, suggested interviewing more candidates, including Boston's former deputy superintendent. But Mr. Brooks and Mr. Dashiell were outnumbered; on a 9-2 vote, Anthony G. Marchione won a four-year term.

"It was an in-your-face kind of move," Mr. Dashiell says. "I'm disappointed with how it happened."

The sudden vote was the last in a series of unusual developments in the school board's search, which has been criticized for its secrecy and for the finalists it produced.

Behind closed doors, board members squabbled over voting and other procedures. At one point, Mr. Dashiell angrily withdrew a vote, sinking a candidate. An error on an application led members to believe one finalist was more experienced than she was. And an argument flared over minor- ity representation, though a black woman was among the semifinalists, because board members didn't realize it.

Some believed finalists would be interviewed twice, but the move to appoint Dr. Marchione came before that could happen. In the end, some members seem to have been preparing to vote while others were still in Pennsylvania visiting Dr. Manning's district, board members said last week.

"They did wrong in aborting the process," says Stephen Crum, a parent who has applied for nomination to the school board, which is appointed by the governor. "They didn't necessarily get the wrong person, but at least the public would have maintained some credibility in the board if they'd had their chance to give their input" on the candidates.

The search drew 25 applicants. But the finalists had little experience running a large district.

Dr. Manning has headed a 7,660-student district 2 1/2 years; Jeffery N. Grotsky of Grand Rapids, Mich., has led a 30,000-student district 4 1/2 years. Dr. Marchione has worked 41 years in the 102,000-student Baltimore County schools, 12 in the No. 2 position, and has been interim superintendent since August.

Board member Sanford V. Teplitzky, speaking for the board, calls the search fair and thorough but declines to explain the board's choices, citing the confidentiality promised to candidates.

"If anyone is challenging this process, in my view they are challenging the personal integrity of each board member and I resent it," he says. "Choosing the superintendent is the single most important vote I will cast in my term, and I took it as seriously as I've ever undertaken any task in my life."

But other board members describe a process that lurched through a series of votes, often focusing more on numbers than on the candidates' qualities.

One board member says the board was haunted by the selection of former Superintendent Stuart Berger, whose contract was bought out last summer a hiring decision that brought the board incessant flogging by parents and politicians.

"To interview a lot of people and keep it wide open, that may have brought in a lot of ideas that people may have never heard before," the board member says. "Then you've got to choose among all those varying ideas.

"Suppose you pick someone who's not safe. Then you have to stand behind your decision, and that's pretty heady stuff. That's taking a risk, and this is a risk-averse board."

In the wake of the Berger era, Dr. Marchione became a popular candidate by getting along with teachers, parents and politicians, and bringing calm to the district.

In January, board members composed a profile of an ideal candidate, incorporating interviews with residents. In NTC mid-February, they visited board President Calvin D. Disney's office individually to review applications, then met on a Sunday and began voting.

For the first vote, each member named on a secret ballot all qualified candidates, producing a list of more than a dozen, board members said. Someone suggested eliminating any candidate with fewer than four votes, but Mr. Dashiell and others protested, saying they had no idea they had voted for that purpose.

"We'd have a vote and people would say, 'I don't understand what I just did,' " one member says. "Two or three rounds of that kind of craziness and you ended up with this mess. Bob [Dashiell] wanted to take his vote away from [Boston's former Deputy Superintendent Arthur W.] Steller. Then, ] [another member] wanted to take [a] vote away from somebody.

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