2 ways to pick schools chiefs

Baltimore Co. board closes doors

Howard opens search to public

How to protect the process?

January 13, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

The search for a school superintendent in Baltimore County is a hush-hush affair. Finalists' names won't be revealed. Interviews will be conducted behind closed doors.

Howard County, though, is taking a strikingly different approach in its search for a new schools chief. Teachers and parents will get a chance to hobnob with two or three finalists during public receptions.

"People expect to have some input," said Stephen Bounds, a member of the Howard County Board of Education. "If we didn't do it, they would demand that kind of involvement."

Parents and community groups in Baltimore County say a more open selection process would help reduce the appearance of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by politicians and others.

Both counties hope to hire superintendents within the next two months.

Four years ago, when Baltimore County board members appointed Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, who will retire in June, critics characterized the process as "rigged" and a "charade." Board members sought input from county residents about the kind of superintendent they wanted but refused to release finalists' names.

"Our biggest fear is that there will be political intervention and that the board won't be looking at the best person but rather the person who will be amenable to what the politicians want," said Ella White Campbell, a member of Baltimore County's African-American Advisory Group. "And that's not good for education."

But school board members insist that some candidates might be scared away if they thought their names would be made public.

"My sense is that the process might not produce the same type of candidates," said Baltimore County school board member John A. Hayden.

Baltimore County school board President Donald L. Arnold said he's surprised that Howard County is taking such an open approach.

Both school boards hired Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates of Glenview, Ill., to locate qualified candidates.

"A large corporation doesn't go out to the stockholders and say, `Do you want this person or that person?' " Arnold said. "This is one of the few functions that a school board has. Most other decisions are based on state or federal mandates."

Baltimore County school board members are appointed by the governor. Howard County board members are elected.

"We have to stand before the public," said Bounds, adding that he doesn't believe the open process will dilute the quality of Howard County's candidates. "My understanding is that we have an outstanding pool of candidates and that they all understand the process."

Mary Jo Neil, president of Howard County's PTA Council, said: "It would be a great disservice if the selection process wasn't open, because this way we can bring to light some concerns and look for positive solutions. An open process benefits everyone."

Across the nation, school boards take different tacks in their searches for superintendents.

"The fact that you have two strikingly different approaches in two neighboring school districts suggests that there's no one best way to go about it," said Jay Goldman, editor of School Administrator Magazine, a publication of the American Association of School Administrators.

Keeping finalists' names secret might be smart, he said, because of the delicate balance between many school boards and superintendents. Trust is easily broken.

"All it takes is the notion that [a superintendent] has allowed his or her name to be placed on a finalist list for a rift to develop into a chasm," Goldman said.

But Goldman said neither approach to hiring is unusual.

"You can argue both sides of the case," he said.

Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who after 16 years will retire from the school system to take a job at Towson University, is the county's third schools chief in 53 years. That might have influenced the school board's decision to go with a more open process, Goldman said.

"When you've had a superintendent for that amount of time who has engendered such wide support, it is very difficult for a school board to then go out and find a successor, because the community wants someone who looks a lot like the current superintendent," Goldman said.

"But with the process they have spelled out, the key stakeholders and community groups will be able to size up these people. To the school board's credit, the open process will ensure that they get the best possible fit."

There's been less continuity and far more controversy in Baltimore County.

Four years ago, county officials paid Superintendent Stuart Berger $300,000 to terminate his contract. Marchione, then Berger's deputy, was named interim superintendent and later hired after a nationwide search. Critics, including some black community leaders, said other qualified candidates were never interviewed.

To guard against leaks to the news media, Baltimore County school board members have designated Arnold as their spokesman and refused to provide information about the search.

"It would be nice if our process could be as open as Howard County's," said Linda Olszewski, president of the Baltimore County PTA Council. "There's a greater comfort level when the process is open."

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