Schools chief prospect on view

Balto. Co. selection for superintendent meets PTA, delegates

March 02, 2000|By Lynn Anderson and M. Dion Thompson | Lynn Anderson and M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Joseph A. Hairston -- Baltimore County's choice to be the next superintendent of schools -- did what he does best yesterday.

He talked for hours with parents, teachers and legislators, over breakfast and lunch, at board room tables and on folding chairs.

"No one sells Joe Hairston better than Joe Hairston," board member Sanford V. Teplitzky said at a Parent Teacher Association meeting Tuesday night.

Hairston's public relations swing, which followed an 11th-hour decision by the Board of Education to delay his appointment until March 14, got good reviews. And he appeared to win many converts, said those who talked with him.

School board members, who picked Hairston over 29 other candidates, never doubted he'd be a hit.

The school board's sudden decision to delay the appointment came at the request of the county executive and County Council, who wanted to give the public a chance to meet Hairston. In the 24 hours after that decision, he attended meetings in Towson and Annapolis with labor groups, county PTA members and top school system staffers and will be attending more during the next two weeks.

Most of those who talked with Hairston said they wanted to give him a chance. They said stories of feuds with school board members, teachers and principals in Clayton County, Ga. -- where the 53-year-old Hairston worked as superintendent until his resignation in January -- were old news.

"You make judgments about someone after you meet them and based on their actions," said Area Superintendent Donald I. Mohler, who was among a group of administrators who met with Hairston at school system headquarters in Towson for an hour yesterday morning.

"When I meet someone, I try to get a sense about what they think about children," said Mohler. "His passion for children comes through."

At a meeting with labor representatives Tuesday evening, Hairston made it clear that he is not coming to Baltimore County to be a "change agent," union members said.

"It was clear to me that Hairston is being brought in for positive reasons," Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said yesterday. "He doesn't see this system as being [broken]."

Holabird Middle School Principal Henry Wagner, who is president of the Baltimore County Council of Administrative and Supervisory Employees union, came away feeling good about Hairston.

"He places a high premium on integrity and honesty," Wagner said. "It's reassuring to know that his philosophy is not to punish people but to do a better job."

Reports encouraging

The Baltimore County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is one of many groups eager to meet with Hairston, said President Anthony Fugett, who attended the special board meeting Tuesday.

Fugett is hopeful that Hairston will be the right choice to lead the county schools. Reports by the group's education committee are encouraging, he said, adding: "They think he will be a good hire."

Hairston also traveled to Annapolis, where he met with members of the county delegation in the House of Delegates.

Del. Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, a 7th District Democrat who heads the delegation, said he asked the school board Tuesday to delay Hairston's appointment until a meeting could be arranged. Minnick said some of his colleagues had questions after reading recent newspaper articles.

"I did not want delegates coming to me after the appointment to say, `Gee, we never got a chance to meet this guy and now he's our superintendent,' " said Minnick. "I wanted to meet with him before he was superintendent."

Hairston, accompanied by school board President Donald L. Arnold and County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, answered questions for about an hour.

Hairston was asked about changes he would like to make in the school system, his career in Georgia and in Prince George's County, and his position on magnet schools and test scores -- particularly test scores for the county's black students.

"They need an opportunity to believe in themselves, and we've confused them. We keep labeling them as African-American students," he said. "We need to work on their confidence and believe in our children, that they are capable of doing what we ask of them."

Afterward, Minnick held out his hand to Hairston and said: "We look forward to working with you." Hairston said the visit was of "immeasurable" value.

`He is brilliant'

Ruppersberger called it "extremely positive" and said: "I applaud the board for opening the process up."

At a candid meeting with PTA members Tuesday night, board members talked publicly for the first time about why they chose Hairston.

"The first thing you are going to notice about him when you meet him is that he is brilliant," said James Walker.

Although board members said they had concerns about reports that Hairston had been accused of shoving a man who shouted insults at him at a public meeting (a magistrate later dismissed the complaint), and was overly critical of teachers and principals in Georgia, they did research and found Hairston to be the right choice.

When asked by a parent to describe Hairston's weak spot, school board Vice President Phyllis Ettinger replied: "He is a very serious person, very focused. That can be misread as aloof."

She quickly added: "Most often, people referred to him as a teddy bear."

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