Concerns voiced about Grotsky Harford principals complained to board before his ouster

March 22, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

The Feb. 26 meeting of Harford County school board members and secondary school principals at Vitali's restaurant in Edgewood began like most sessions held in recent years -- with plates of chicken parmesan and ravioli, and talk of issues from classroom size to the budget.

But before the meeting broke up, another important topic arose: the principals' dissatisfaction with Superintendent Jeffery N. Grotsky. Among other complaints, they said they mistrusted the central office and felt they weren't allowed to discuss school matters with the board.

Such complaints were not new to board members -- just three days earlier, elementary school principals had voiced concerns about Grotsky at a dinner meeting, participants say. Together, the meetings helped to set in motion the school chief's final days.

Monday, visibly tense board members held a special meeting to announce that Grotsky, 53, would be leaving the superintendent's post by the end of the week. He was given a severance package worth more than $271,000 after serving less than half a four-year contract -- a deal that has drawn criticism from county officials as too expensive.

"We felt like we couldn't wait any longer," says school board President Geoffrey R. Close.

The gulf between the school board and Grotsky widened steadily in recent months, say board members, administrators and elected officials. By March 10 -- weeks after the principals aired their grievances at dinner -- board members were meeting to discuss Grotsky's termination.

"There was no straw that broke the camel's back," says board member Richard W. Daub Jr. "It was a culmination of things."

Looking back, many educators praise Grotsky's business skills. But others portray him as an arrogant administrator who often pitted staff members against each other and who shook the central office's foundation when he decreed that veteran employees had to reapply for their jobs.

Several administrators say they were mystified by Grotsky's reorganization of the top staff in Harford, which has the state's lowest administrative costs per pupil -- and where students ranked near the top in statewide performance tests.

In the end, even his best intentions became fodder for criticism. For example, when he removed the door to his office -- part of a policy of openness -- some employees joked that the move was made so people could not knock to be invited in.

"I had high hopes," Thomas W. Small, former director of technology and information services who voluntarily left the system, says of Grotsky's arrival. "He came with great fanfare. It didn't take long for the problems in Grand Rapids to hit Harford County."

Grotsky received poor marks in 1996 from his former school board in Michigan for his blunt, control-oriented management. He resigned as superintendent after 4 1/2 years to accept the Harford post.

Despite his Michigan evaluation -- which some attributed to board members there wanting a black superintendent -- Harford County's seven-member school board hired Grotsky to lead the growing district of 38,000 students and 49 schools into the next century.

"We felt we could be more business-oriented. We got that with Dr. Grotsky," says Daub. "At the same time, you need to balance that. We don't produce widgets. We produce individuals."

While some liken Grotsky's relationship with the school board to a marriage gone bad, an impending train wreck or a rocking ship, Daub gravitates toward sports.

"He was a hardball player from an urban school district, who came to a softball team in a suburban school district," Daub says. "It was a clash of style."

Karen L. Wolf, who started on the board in July 1996 when LTC Grotsky arrived, says that while board members were pleased with initiatives such as leadership training, "We were moving a little too quickly. We were going in too many directions at one time."

Grotsky also didn't grasp the culture of Harford County, elected officials say.

"It's very unique," says County Council President Joanne S. Parrott. "Basically, everybody works together, communicating back and forth. We try to forge good relationships."

To many county residents, though, the tug-of-war involving Grotsky, county officials and board members was barely noticeable -- unlike the public antics of former Baltimore County school Superintendent Stuart Berger, who was dismissed 2 1/2 years ago.

Keeping the problems in-house was a plus, says Gary Marx, spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators. "When there is a great deal of conflict or if people are trying to upstage everyone else, then it makes the board and the system operate in a circus atmosphere, and that isn't constructive."

Grotsky will remain at school headquarters in Bel Air as a consultant until June 8 and will continue to occupy his large corner office.

Tuesday, the day after the board's announcement, Grotsky was attending to such everyday matters as relocatable classrooms for crowded schools. In his office, classical music played soothingly, and students' artwork brightened the walls.

He was happy to talk about his interim successor, Jackie Haas, 49, who takes over leadership of the district tomorrow.

"I found her creative and open to ideas," he said of the former assistant superintendent of educational services he promoted from elementary principal. "She's a person I'm trying to mentor."

His impending departure was more difficult to discuss.

"You always regret when things don't work out," Grotsky said. "I'm packing up slowly."

Several board members predict that Grotsky will land on his feet as a superintendent somewhere else.

Grotsky said he had made no decisions. But one thing is certain, he said.

"I'm going to leave with my head held up high."

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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