Ruppersberger chimes in before hiring of school chief

Concerns raised over management style

March 03, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Read the law, and you'll find that Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger has no say over who becomes the next schools superintendent.

Read between the lines, and you'll see political clout that can be unleashed when needed.

That muscle was exercised this week in a fashion rarely seen in public, when Ruppersberger and the County Council politely demanded that the school board delay the appointment of a schools chief until parents and unions could meet him.

Just moments before the school board was expected to hire Joseph A. Hairston, members relented. Hairston was still the top pick, the state-appointed board said. But a final decision would be postponed until March 14.

For the moment, Ruppersberger and the council got their way, even though the victory may be more symbolic than substantive.

"I don't think this was a power-play issue," said Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat. "It was damage control, over a situation [Ruppersberger] did not create."

Concerns over Hairston's management style were sparked by news reports containing mixed reviews of his tenure as superintendent in Clayton County, Ga. Teacher representatives criticized what they described as his uncompromising and aloof manner, while supporters praised his strong will and commitment to improving failing schools.

For Baltimore County leaders, the descriptions triggered frightening flashbacks. Wasn't that the style of Stuart Berger, the superintendent Ruppersberger helped force out in 1995?

"People in the community felt really used and victimized" during Berger's three-year tenure, said Marjorie Slater-Kaplan, president of the Baltimore County League of Women Voters. "In the end, the consensus was Mr. Berger was brought in as a hatchet man to do the job the school board felt had to be done."

The county "is still in a healing process" from Berger, said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a North County-Owings Mills Republican. "I have serious concerns [about Hairston], and from the constituent calls I've gotten, that feeling is widespread. Some people have referred to it as `Berger revisited.' "

It's a climate that elected officials don't want to re-create.

A preference for peace

In the world according to Dutch, Baltimore County is a harmonious place where the mantra is teamwork. Disagreements get patched over behind closed doors, with everybody emerging happy. Renegades are shunned.

"Dutch's view of teamwork is that he is the captain and everybody will follow the plays that he calls," said Douglas P. Riley, a former councilman now practicing law in Baltimore. "Dutch likes everything to be smooth all the time. My view is that the system needs to have tension in it. I think tension is good and tension is healthy."

The outspoken Berger repeatedly clashed with Ruppersberger and other leaders over education policy, such as the establishment of magnet schools and his transfer of many special education students to regular schools. After a $300,000 buyout, Berger was replaced by Anthony G. Marchione, an unassuming veteran of the system. With Marchione retiring in June, the school board undertook a national but secretive search for a replacement.

Ruppersberger asked months ago that a member of his staff sit on the selection committee. The board refused. Elected officials asked the school board to make its top two or three finalists public. The board refused. Finally, Ruppersberger was notified about two weeks ago that the board had its top choice. Hairston was brought to Annapolis Feb. 24 to meet with Ruppersberger.

But as the executive's staff and reporters checked into Hairston's background, questions about his sometimes confrontational management style emerged. A hasty announcement, Ruppersberger and County Council members said, would leave those questions unanswered, saddling the new superintendent with too much baggage.

In an interview this week, Berger chuckled in disbelief that the school board would select a leader whose strong will resembles his own.

Ruppersberger "is petrified that the same thing is going to happen as before: Somebody is going to stand up to him," said Berger, who still lives in Baltimore County, working as an educational consultant. "He's been running the school system for five years." Under Marchione, "neither the county nor the school board nor the teachers union has heard the word `no' in five years, and they don't want to hear it now."

In search of an ally

There's no doubt that Ruppersberger covets an ally in the superintendent's job. The county gives about half of its $1 billion general fund budget to the public schools, and has virtually no say in how it is spent.

"When there is a problem with schools, the council gets called all the time," said Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat. "We are held accountable by our constituents, but the board is not accountable to us."

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