Arundel school chief rising to head of class Parham has reputation for shrewdness, toughness

November 03, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

She is the superintendent to watch these days.

Carol Sheffey Parham, at the helm of Anne Arundel County public schools, has the backing of the state superintendent of schools, kudos from at least two county executives and her peers, and critics who admire her strengths.

At a time when the nation's public school superintendent stay at one job for an average of about 2 1/2 years, Parham, who has held her post since 1993, is neither job-hunting nor being pushed out. Rather, she is viewed as a rising star, an intelligent woman with a Midas, albeit sometimes heavy-handed, touch.

"She would be a very desirable person to get for a superintendent," says Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who was Parham's mentor when he was an administrator with the Howard schools. "I hear a lot of good things about her."

That sentiment is echoed by others, including superintendents in Montgomery and Howard counties, where school boards will be looking to replace retiring superintendents within four years.

Parham has been approached for jobs elsewhere -- she won't say where -- but she says flatly that she is not interested. Her four-year appointment in the state's fifth-largest school district doesn't expire until 1998, and she intends to stay.

"I want to be here to complete the job I've started," she said in a recent interview.

Parham was plucked from an invisible position -- Arundel's director of human resources -- to become acting superintendent in 1993, in the midst of a much-publicized teacher-student sex scandal, and received a four-year contract in 1994.

Her admirers and critics agree that she is politically shrewd, articulate, personable and tough. And she makes it clear that she intends to get her way.

Neither school employees nor others who deal regularly with Parham would speak on the record about her management style. Some say she makes more demands than her predecessors did, and some are feeling the heat. A number of longtime administrators have retired in the past 1 1/2 years, some gently forced out.

Nevertheless, Parham calmed the turmoil over sex scandals. The policies and jobs that state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick demanded are in place, some over virulent objections of employee unions and despite the County Council's refusal to give the schools money to pay for them.

Parham has a way of deflecting criticism that even her critics admire.

She has taken none of the blame for the troubled school construction division's errors and cost overruns. That fell on the division itself, and on the school board.

Critics, however, say too many things have not been addressed.

"If I had my druthers, she would be out of there tomorrow," said Severna Park parent John Birkenheuer, who said Parham pays insufficient attention to educational quality.

The special-education budget is stretched thin, dropout rates have gone up, and middle school test scores have sagged, Birkenheuer said.

Parham says criticism on what she has not done is premature because she is only halfway through her term.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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