There are worse sins than poor public relations

June 09, 1996|By Elise Armacost

BALTIMORE County School Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione would like to have May 1, the day he met the press about pepper spray, to do over again. He blew it. He knows he blew it.

Deliberate as ever, he went prepared with a meticulously worded statement explaining his position -- that schools must be safe and rules against dangerous weapons strong; that it would be unfair for him to meddle in the expulsion review process in the case of Jodie Ulrich when other expelled students have not had the benefit of such interference; that any decision to change the rule involving pepper spray must be carefully considered.

In the end, the Ulrich family's emotional outbursts overwhelmed what he had to say and took him by surprise. He should have seen this coming, he says now. The situation called for an off-the-cuff reaction, but the superintendent is not an off-the-cuff kind of person. The press conference got away from him.

''Wimpy,'' one reporter promptly called the performance, nostalgic for Stuart Berger, an off-the-cuff person if ever there was one. The kind of outspoken, instantaneous reaction for which Dr. Berger was famous is what many expect from Tony Marchione. They are not likely to get it. It's not in his nature. ''He likes to look at an issue from many different perspectives'' before acting, says Richard Bavaria, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Does that make him ill-suited to be head of a complex 102,000-student school system? Does deliberation equal indecision? Can a quiet person lead?

If leadership merely involved sounding pithy and inspirational in print or on TV, the answer would be no. Of course, it involves

more: knowledge, action, character, the ability to make tough choices. Dr. Marchione has stacked up better in these departments than he's been given credit for during his first rocky months at the helm.

Since his appointment, questions about his leadership have been focused on three public-relations crises: the pepper-spray affair, the Deer Park Elementary/school facilities debacle and the superintendent-selection process. Consider, for a moment, his role in each:

The superintendent-selection process was a sham. Of 25 applicants, the school board's finalists included, besides Dr. Marchione, the heads of two very small school systems. High-ranking leaders from major metropolitan areas weren't even interviewed. The process clearly was rigged in Dr. Marchione's favor.

But unless he was complicit in the rigging -- and there is no evidence he was -- the method by which he was selected is not his fault. It is the school board's fault.

The Deer Park situation at first appeared an isolated problem at one school. Clearly, however, it is symptomatic of three years of incompetent, perhaps criminal, actions on the part of facilities officials. More than a month after Deer Park was closed for air-quality problems, Dr. Marchione was criticized for waiting for two internal reviews instead of immediately taking action.

Taking action

Once the facts became clear, however, he did act. He has removed the facilities director, replacing a former principal with an expert; fired three top facilities officials; called for an external investigation, and turned the matter over to the county attorney for a probe of potential corruption.

Whether the superintendent erred in not immediately sending Jodie Ulrich back to school and weakening punishments for possession of pepper spray is a matter of opinion. But criticisms that he couldn't make a decision are off base. His decision was that he would not treat Jodie Ulrich any differently than any other student who has gone through the expulsion appeals process. This was fairly bold, considering its unpopularity.

He also decided that, while he strongly believes possession of weapons merits automatic expulsion, this case called into question whether pepper spray should be handled differently. Hence his call for a poll on pepper spray. Widely ridiculed as a sign of indecision, this was in fact a characteristic display of his tendency to weigh a variety of perspectives.

Dr. Marchione's biggest failure in this case was in public relations. He never successfully explained to the public his reasons for sticking with school policy.

It is, of course, far too early to reach a verdict on whether Dr. Marchione is a good or bad superintendent. He has some lofty goals, such as requiring all students to read, write and compute on grade level by second grade. It remains to be seen whether he can fulfill them. If he can, his troubled first months will barely be remembered when the post-mortems are written.

And if he never fully masters the art of using the bully pulpit -- if it turns out that he is better at running schools than talking about running them -- well, Baltimore countians could suffer far worse.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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