Ga. educator in line for Balto. Co. post

Announcement due today

superintendent would start in summer

February 29, 2000|By Lynn Anderson and Jay Apperson | Lynn Anderson and Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Joseph A. Hairston, a straight-talking administrator whose confrontations with school board members forced him to leave a job in the Atlanta suburbs, is expected to be named Baltimore County's next superintendent today.

The appointment will wrap up a nationwide search for a schools chief to replace Anthony G. Marchione, who is retiring. Hairston, who led the Clayton County school system for five years before resigning last month, is expected to take control of the county's 106,000-student system this summer, sources said.

"I've always been impressed with the Baltimore County school system and community," Hairston said yesterday. He worked for about 25 years in Prince George's County as a teacher, principal and area superintendent before leaving for Georgia.

As superintendent of the Clayton County, Ga., system, Hairston brought computers to every classroom and made sure teachers knew how to use them to help children. He held teachers and students to high standards.

But Hairston, 53, was also known to butt heads with community leaders and educators who saw him as a man who tried to push through policy changes and programs without first building support for them.

"What did him in wasn't his educational expertise but the good-old-boy network," said Drew Allbritten, executive director of the Georgia Association of Educators, which represents about 1,500 teachers, administrators and support staff in Clayton.

Members of the Baltimore County school board visited Hairston and interviewed former colleagues in Clayton County on Friday. Board members met Sunday at an undisclosed location to discuss their findings; the session's secrecy was typical of that surrounding the search since November.

Hairston resigned in Clayton largely because of political pressure from school board members.

"It's unfortunate that he got caught up in local politics," said Allbritten. "He became the Ping-Pong ball of various board agendas, which made his job virtually impossible."

Jonesboro, the Clayton County seat, is a small city whose Main Street hugs the Norfolk Southern rail line. It boasts of being the site of a key Civil War battle and the setting for the epic novel "Gone With the Wind."

Besides "Gone With the Wind" merchandise, the visitors center displays an item from more contemporary culture: an autographed glossy photograph of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The cover of the group's "Pronounced" album shows the band members on Main Street.

For generations a farming community, Clayton County became a blue-collar suburb of Atlanta in the 1950s and '60s. But Atlanta's rise as an employment center changed the face of the county, with many middle-class and professional blacks settling in the area more recently, said Steve Rieck, president of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce.

Changes in runway configurations at nearby Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport caused a drop in property values, which led to the first wave of Hispanic and Asian migration, Rieck said.

Clayton County schools were slow to react to the change in ethnic and cultural diversity -- until Hairston arrived.

Hairston was a man of many firsts in Clayton County -- the first African-American superintendent, the first appointed superintendent and the first schools chief from another state.

But a fractured school board made Hairston's life miserable.

"Frankly, I'd have to characterize it as a dysfunctional board," said Rieck. "They have a hard time getting together on the simplest of issues.

"I sensed a growing frustration in terms of Joe's ability to help the school board" get what the issues were. "They have a tendency to want to micromanage the system; maybe he felt he was being undercut."

Hairston's most outspoken critic in Georgia was John Trotter, executive director of the Metro Association of Classroom Educators, who says the former superintendent shoved him during a 1997 board meeting. A magistrate later dismissed charges of simple battery against Hairston, a former football player.

Sour relations

"We didn't like him," said Trotter, referring to his group, whose members include three Clayton County school board representatives. "He was very heavy-handed, very impersonal, very distant and very aloof. He wanted to blame teachers for any shortcomings."

Trotter and other critics said Hairston never caught on to the Southern way of doing business -- and that it caused him trouble in his professional career.

"We're a little more gracious down here," said Trotter. "We have gentility. He came down here with his Northern ways and it just didn't work out."

Allbritten, the other union leader, said Hairston didn't like to play social and political games with elected officials and other community groups.

"He could have made more time to make better friends with the power brokers," said Allbritten, "but he came to a system that was in trouble -- he was always about kids."

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