Bowing to intense pressure from county officials, the Baltimore County Board of Education delayed yesterday the appointment of Joseph A. Hairston as superintendent of schools.
The board agreed to the two-week delay after County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and the County Council issued a last-minute request that the public have an opportunity to meet Hairston.
"It's an important position and this way he can stand on his merits," said Ruppersberger. If the school board had made the appointment, he added, "it would have been an appearance that there was something to hide, and that you didn't involve your community in the process."
Though it agreed to the delay, the board, meeting in a special session yesterday evening, stood firm with its choice of Hairston -- a 53-year-old educator known for his classroom innovations and sometimes confrontational style.
Board President Donald L. Arnold said, "We are proud of our selection -- and want to provide an opportunity for the public to meet him. We feel that [after those meetings] they too will have the same feeling that we do as far as sharing the enthusiasm for Joe Hairston."
At a PTA meeting later at the Ruxton Center, board members tried to calm parents and teachers, telling them that Hairston is "brilliant," "a good listener" and "a team player."
"We do not want to repeat a situation where their is divisiveness," said board member Sanford Teplitzky.
Teplitzky is one of two board members who served during the tenure of former superintendent Stuart Berger, who was fired in August 1995 because he made policy changes without widespread support from the board, parents and teachers.
The school board is expected to vote to approve Hairston's appointment at a regularly scheduled meeting March 14. Until then, Hairston will shuttle between his home in Jonesboro, Ga., and Baltimore County.
It was unclear yesterday when or where the meetings with Hairston would be held. Hairston said he will be unavailable to return to Baltimore County until early next week.
Hairston's salary and benefits were not available yesterday.
After his pending appointment was announced at last night's meeting, Hairston was greeted with warm applause from a room full of top school system administrators and presented with a Maryland flag, and a Baltimore County coffee mug and lapel pin.
Wrapped in the flag of the state where he has spent most of his professional career, Hairston said he was excited to return to Maryland, where his wife, Lillian, and two sons were educated.
"It is my pleasure and my honor to return home to the great state of Maryland," said Hairston, who worked as a teacher and administrator in Prince George's County for 27 years before leaving in 1995 for Georgia, where he was superintendent of the Clayton County school system until resigning last month.
"I think it's a wonderful opportunity to come to a quality school system," Hairston said.
The request for the delay came yesterday afternoon during a meeting involving Ruppersberger, County Council members, Arnold, Hairston and board Vice President Phyllis E. Ettinger.
Last night, Arnold played down the importance of the request in the board's decision. "We make our own decisions," he said.
Ruppersberger was adamant about the need for community input at the afternoon meeting.
"If you open the process up in the next week and you take Joe out and you let him meet the different PTAs and teachers unions, then people feel they are part of the process in the end," Ruppersberger told Arnold. "Then he starts out on a level playing field."
Ruppersberger lamented that articles in The Sun about Hairston's background had led to questions about whether he is suited for the job. A delay, Ruppersberger implied, could help school officials sway public opinion.
"We've lost control of the issue, to a certain extent, when the negatives get out before the positives," Ruppersberger said.
Before the evening meeting, school board members met behind closed doors for about 30 minutes to discuss postponing Hairston's appointment.
The political pressure that was applied yesterday underscored long-standing concerns about the secretive nature of the superintendent search. The County Council passed a resolution in January urging the school board to announce their top finalists so parents, teachers and others could meet and judge them. Council members were irked that the board ignored the resolution.
School board members "were sent a clear message by the council," County Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder said, referring to the resolution. "I'm not starting out with any negatives about Mr. Hairston. My problem is with the school board and the exclusionary process."
Council members have clashed with school officials over management decisions and spending on construction and repairs.
Bartenfelder said yesterday that his frustration has grown so much that he is considering pushing for legislation that would place control of the county school system under the county executive. School board members are now selected by the governor.
Hairston expressed regret at the delay. "I don't have any control over it," he said. "These things are unfortunate when they do happen."