Parham rising to head of class Superintendent in Arundel known 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 deft, 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.

The employee who errs at board meetings can expect to be subjected to the vitriol of the board, followed by a few private words with Parham, who does not intend to be embarrassed by her staff.

"My experience with Dr. Parham is she feels personally responsible if something is not presented appropriately, if there is a quote unquote screw-up. Given that, she is going to get to the bottom of it," said Michael Raible, the former school construction chief.

Her background in the personnel departments in Howard and Anne Arundel counties could be the key.

"Remember what the personnel director is," says P. Tyson Bennett, attorney for the Anne Arundel school board. "The personnel director is by definition the corporate SOB."

Turmoil calmed

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.

When Van Bokkelen Elementary in Severn became the first school outside Baltimore to be threatened with state takeover because of abysmal 1995 test scores, Parham brought in a new principal, eased parental worries and presented what Grasmick hailed as a "model plan" to revamp the school.

Grasmick support

Nearly everyone in the school system expects Van Bokkelen's scores to go up when the results of the May 1996 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams are announced this winter, although some note that the scores were so low that they can't sink far.

The result is that Parham enjoys Grasmick's unqualified support.

"I admire her ability to handle the situations that are not necessarily the ones you sign up for when you become a superintendent," Grasmick said.

"You can't get any more politically connected," said former Arundel school board member JoAnn Tollenger. "If Nancy puts in a good word for you, who else do you need?"

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.

Good timing

And the timing of her proposal last month to privatize the division was impeccable.

The year that County Executive John G. Gary had given the schools to remedy construction woes before he would try to take over the division had nearly expired.

Meanwhile, Gary was unnerving board members with his four-member panel scrutinizing every construction angle.

Relieved school board members praised Parham's leadership.

At a forum in Annapolis in September, parents fumed over large classes. First, Parham told them she didn't have enough money to hire more teachers, which was not what they came to hear.

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