Hope fuels search for school chief

Executive sees chance to improve criticized Prince George's system

February 06, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO -- When Jerome Clark took over the management of Prince George's County schools almost four years ago, he promised he would fire administrators who did not improve the quality of education.

Now, with criticism of the failing system coming from all quarters, Clark is the one leaving. The 56-year-old superintendent announced Monday that he would retire rather than divert attention from the needs of Maryland's largest school system with a fight for contract renewal.

Critics of Clark and the system caution that it would be foolish to think his departure means a turnaround is imminent.

"You can't change the coach and keep the same lousy players," says Del. Rushern L. Baker III, who is chairman of the Prince George's House delegation. "We need to gain the confidence of the people. If we give them the status quo, their confidence is going to erode even more."

County Executive Wayne K. Curry says he believes the choice of a new superintendent will make a statement to residents and skeptical lawmakers in Annapolis that Prince George's is turning things around.

"It's an opportunity for the county school system to really define itself and its mission," Curry says. "It's an opportunity to reflect on what it would take to really improve the chances for children."

Worried about the direction of the county schools, Baker and other Prince George's lawmakers have drafted legislation that would give the county executive and County Council significant new power over the school budget.

The bill, which is expected to be introduced in the General Assembly soon, would also give the governor the power to appoint three members of the school board to serve with the nine elected members.

The school system, with more than 125,000 students, suffers from problems that were years in the making: ancient, crowded buildings, numerous pockets of poverty, high teacher turnover.

A 1972 federal civil rights lawsuit that led to court-ordered busing exacerbated the problems. Administrators charged with improving schools testified during a hearing on ending busing in 1997 that they devoted a great deal of time to trying to racially balance enrollment and teaching staffs.

Hopes for Clark, who came to the system as a teacher in 1971, were high, perhaps too high, even his critics acknowledge.

"It's kind of hard when you grow up in a system to make radical decisions," says Baker. "It's hard when you've known someone for 15 or 20 years to tell them they're not going to be a principal anymore."

County Council member Walter H. Maloney is more blunt: "He was a pleasant fellow, but he was in over his head."

Clark started programs to raise test scores, help at-risk children and lower the dropout rate. He had some successes.

"We implemented programs the first year. They took hold the second year, and now we're seeing the results. Test scores in the third, fifth and eighth grades rose," Clark says.

But he had neither the staff nor the money to pull off dramatic changes.

Prince George's schools have the second-highest percentage of uncertified teachers in the state, and the departure rate for first-year teachers is 12 percent.

County schools labor under a property tax ceiling that was approved by voters in 1978, and until recently money was slow in coming from Annapolis.

Montgomery County, with slightly fewer students, received $36 million from the state in 1996 to build schools, while Prince George's got $5.7 million. Curry says the imbalance in favor allowed Montgomery to build 20 schools in the same period that Prince George's built five.

The thing that caused many of the school system's problems served as a catalyst for change.

After two decades of attempts to end court-ordered busing, everyone from the governor to the NAACP to parents declared it was time to do what was necessary to win the confidence of the judge and get him to rescind the busing order. The parties reached an agreement, including canceling busing, which the judge approved.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who was Prince George's county executive for 12 years, pledged $35 million a year over four years to build 13 schools, and Curry promised $32 million each year.

Before the General Assembly approved the deal last year, lawmakers insisted on more accountability, just as they did with the Baltimore aid deal in 1997. Glendening responded with a nine-member Management Oversight Panel for Prince George's, made up of educators, business people and parents.

The panel is working with the results of an audit conducted last fall that recommended cutting more than 300 staff positions, reforming the management structure and tightening bookkeeping and inventory controls.

Last month, Artis Hampshire-Cowan, the oversight chairwoman, was critical of Clark's proposed $931 million budget for 1999-2000, calling it "bloated." She questioned the superintendent's commitment to change.

Hampshire-Cowan says that while it's easy to focus blame on one person, "there's enough fault to go around."

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