Rebutting sharp criticism from the NAACP, Howard County school officials said they are pleased with their track record of hiring African-Americans and committed to having a racially diverse staff.
In a letter sent last weekto the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey provided data showing that 17.2 percent of school system staff was black in 1996, compared with 15.8 percent of the students.
Of the county's 2,583 teachers in October 1997, 12 percent were black, compared with 16.9 percent of its 40,215 students,
according to the latest data from the State Department of Education. The percentage of black teachers has hovered around 12 percent every year since the 1990-1991 school year.
The school board chairman supports Hickey.
"As far as the main contention that we're not hiring minority teachers in an equitable fashion, I think that the data just clearly do not support that proposition," said chairman Stephen Bounds. "Our minority teacher population mirrors our minority student population better than just about anybody in the state."
At a school board meeting Aug. 27, representatives of the civil rights organization said the school system had failed to hire enough black staff members, passed over qualified black candidates for teaching jobs and unfairly demoted an unnamed black assistant principal to a teaching job.
In a position paper, the NAACP said that experienced African-American job applicants were "routinely failing to pass interviews, while recent white college graduates with no experience passed."
Natalie Woodson, chairwoman of the NAACP's education committee, said the group is not appeased by Hickey's response. The organization remains concerned with the overall number of African-Americans being hired and the complaints of applicants who said they have not gotten interviews.
"The correct analogy should be the total number of persons hired vs. the number of African-Americans [hired]," Woodson said. "You can sort of twist numbers and statistics to suit your purposes, but they don't always get to the heart of the issue."
Woodson said the NAACP was disturbed that no African-Americans were hired as maintenance workers last year, and that only four of the 59 food-service workers hired were black. NAACP members pointed out that no black people are employed by the school system as carpenters, plumbers or electricians.
The school system does not dispute that. Bounds said school staff has been asked to take a closer look at that issue and report back to the board.
According to information submitted by the school system to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1994, 17.3 percent of the full-time staff -- including teachers -- was African-American, representing 682 people out of 3,927. The percentage was 17.2 percent in 1996, or 736 African-Americans out of 4,276 employees.
In 1997, the school system hired 363 teachers out of 4,300 applicants. Of those 363, 47 were black, or 12.9 percent. The percentage of minority teachers hired -- including Asian and Hispanic teachers -- has fluctuated between 13.5 percent and 18 percent during the past five years, according to information from the school system's 1997 "Hiring and Separation Report."
There was no breakdown for African-Americans.
"There are white applicants who feel just as neglected," said schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan. "We have thousands of applicants every year."
With the exception of Baltimore City, where 61.2 percent of the teachers are African-American, the percentage of black teachers Howard County is above that of other school districts in the region, the State Department of Education reports.
Anne Arundel County has 10 percent; Baltimore County, 8.7 percent; Carroll, 0.7 percent; and Harford, 4.5 percent.
"If you use that as a benchmark for institutional racism, then every jurisdiction in the state is far more to be criticized for that than we are," Bounds said.
Caplan and Hickey said the school system doesn't get many African-American job applicants. Hickey said the county has tried recruiting from local historically black colleges such as Morgan State and Howard universities, but they are smaller schools that turn out a small number of graduates. In the case of Howard University, many of its graduates choose to teach in areas in or near the District of Columbia, Hickey said.
Few minority applicants
"We're just not getting a lot of minority applicants," Caplan said. "Those who have outstanding credentials, you realize that all the systems are going to be vying for these same people.
"When we find a strong African-American candidate that we really want, we'll sign them immediately if they'll sign with us. That has proved to be very successful for us in holding onto the ones that are going to get snapped up."