Educator gets good grades for efforts After two years, Marchione steadies county school system

March 08, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Anthony G. Marchione was hired as permanent superintendent of Baltimore County's schools two years ago to bring a steadying hand to a district in turmoil.

Today, the unassuming 66-year-old educator is given high marks for restoring calm and instilling confidence, reaching out to teachers, parents and students who felt they had been shut out and ignored.

Administrators no longer joke about learning of major new initiatives by listening to the radio as they drive on the Beltway. Parents say their concerns are heard. Politicians praise the district for responsible spending proposals.

And the streets leading to the district's Greenwood headquarters are devoid of signs calling for the superintendent's ouster.

It is a marked change from the tenure of Marchione's predecessor, Stuart Berger, who was ousted by the school board almost seven months before Marchione's permanent appointment as superintendent.

"I think he has settled everyone down," says Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. "There seems to be more of a sense, certainly from my point of view, of wanting to work together."

But Marchione's critics, while praising the stability he has brought, say the district still needs more innovative ideas.

It's a complaint first raised by leaders of the county's black community who opposed his appointment and questioned whether an educator whose experience in the system dates back to the 1950s could solve such problems as lagging minority student achievement.

"In some areas, I think Tony has done very well," says Robert Dashiell, one of two school board members who voted against Marchione's appointment. "But in my judgment, he is burdened by his experience in the system."

Not even Marchione's most loyal supporters argue that the 105,500-student district -- one of the nation's 25 largest -- doesn't have problems.

Far too much inconsistency exists in instruction among the 159 schools, Marchione acknowledges. An achievement gap persists between minority students and their white peers, as well as difficulties that typically accompany poverty. And many of the district's aging school buildings need repair.

Yet Marchione's boosters point to his efforts over the past two years to try to solve those problems. For example, a county program that puts experienced mentors in schools with many new teachers has earned both praise and financial support from state educators.

Before President Clinton began talking about reading skills and overcrowded classes, Marchione was focusing on those issues. Last spring, the district posted the area's largest gains on the state's annual exams.

"We had a system that was on the bubble" of having serious problems, says Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "Tony has shown the leadership to focus on curriculum and instruction and really point the district in the right direction."

Marchione -- who began as a math and science teacher in 1955 -- served 12 years as the district's deputy superintendent under Robert Y. Dubel and Berger.

When the school board bought out Berger's contract in August 1995, Marchione was thrust into the role of interim superintendent. In March 1996, after a national search, the board gave him a four-year contract -- making him one of a few superintendents in the nation to spend their careers in the same large district.

His start in the $125,000-per-year position was more than a little rocky.

On his second day as interim superintendent, Marchione abruptly canceled negotiations for a no-bid contract with an Arizona technology company after conflict-of-interest allegations were raised about the firm's financing of trips for teachers and administrators.

Months later, a long-simmering crisis in the district's facilities department boiled over. Poor air quality and maintenance forced Deer Park Elementary to close, and audits turned up widespread mismanagement.

Marchione brought in the retired chief of the county's Department of Public Works to take charge of facilities -- a shift away from picking educators to oversee noneducational areas in which they had little experience.

"He's brought in excellent talent," says County Council Chairman Stephen G. Sam Moxley. "I think we all feel much more comfortable sending money to the school system because we know that it will be spent responsibly."

Marchione emphasizes that the district must focus on three goals: student achievement, safe and orderly schools, and efficient and effective use of resources.

"We used to get goal statements that were eight pages long, with 15 or 20 goals on each page," says Robert Kemmery, principal of Eastern Technical High School. "By choosing just three goals and saying this is how schools will be held accountable, we have a much stronger focus."

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