Schools finalist makes rounds

Balto. County panel leaders follow Hairston to forums

`Sincere and consistent'

March 12, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Joseph A. Hairston -- the man who is expected to lead Baltimore County schools during the next four years -- spent a lot of time with two of his biggest fans last week.

Everywhere the educator went, the Board of Education president and vice president followed. Donald L. Arnold and Phyllis E. Ettinger guided him through a series of forums, where teachers, parents and administrators posed barbed questions, probing Hairston's character as well as his intellect.

In the end, when the last gathering broke up, Arnold was pleased. "I think it went extremely well," he said Friday. "People have accepted Joe with open arms, and they feel much more comfortable."

Tuesday night, Arnold's assessment will be tested. That's when the board is scheduled to vote on whether to hire Hairston.

By most accounts, Hairston impressed those with whom he met during the course of the week. Teachers and parents said they were won over by his direct manner and his willingness to answer their questions.

Despite the concerns raised by reports of Hairston's conflicts with school board members in Clayton County, Ga., where he worked for five years before resigning in January, he proved himself to skeptics in Baltimore County, including County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Arnold said.

Nearly two weeks ago, Ruppersberger and the County Council asked the school board to delay Hairston's appointment so the public could learn more about him. Since then, the educator has been on public display, huddling with leaders of the teachers union over dinner Tuesday and showing up at a regular meeting of high school principals with retiring Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione on Thursday.

The process, Hairston said, has been exhausting. He fell into bed at his hotel about 11 p.m. every night. His wife, Lillian, at home in Jonesboro, Ga., made wake-up calls to his room every morning about 6.

"No superintendent in America has been subjected to this type of scrutiny," Hairston said Friday, before a meeting with school nurses. "We have satisfied every request. What else can you do? This was all done in the spirit of fairness."

Hairston, 52, granted full disclosure to Baltimore County, talking about his years as superintendent in Clayton County and the "hostile" environment he encountered there, his thoughts on student accountability, society's unrealistic expectations regarding public education, and his childhood.

"There are forces out there who want you to feel frustrated, but that's more of a reason for us to come together," Hairston told teachers who complained about a lack of support by parents and politicians. "Don't let those dead mice gnaw on you. Don't beat yourselves up emotionally."

For teachers, Hairston's words had a calming effect. A gathering of about 200 teachers gave Hairston a standing ovation Thursday.

"He said all the right things, for the most part," said Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. "His answers seem to be sincere and consistent. What he said was well thought out but not rehearsed. Much of what he said made sense and he didn't try to come up with trite answers to complex problems."

Teachers got a different response from Stuart D. Berger when he was hired in 1992 to replace Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel, Beytin said.

"Eight years ago, we had glib answers, quick answers to too many problems," Beytin said. "When Berger was brought on, he was brought on to make vast changes, and that was clear and everyone knew it. What's clear now is that [Hairston] is not being brought on to do that."

In terms of student accountability, Hairston expects students to do the work set before them by classroom teachers. "I've never understood social promotion," he said. "I've never practiced it."

He expects teachers and parents to be role models.

"The only people who can save public education now are educators and the parents who support them," he said.

A long line of mentors molded Hairston, including his grandfather and father, men who demanded respect for themselves and their families, he said. "My grandfather was a kind and gentle soul," Hairston recalled Friday. "Not very talkative and very reflective. Maybe that's where I get it."

A week's worth of "candid dialogue" with educators and parents has done much to reassure Hairston that he made the right choice in returning to Maryland, he said. Hairston worked for 27 years in Prince George's County as a teacher and administrator.

"People know me as a real human now," he said. "Not something manifested in print."

With his public trial behind him, Hairston feels confident about his future in Baltimore County, he said. He spent yesterday morning house hunting. He will return to Towson on Tuesday for the board vote. Hairston's tentative starting date is July 1.

Until then, Hairston will take a break. He wants to put last week's "inquisition" behind him.

"I pushed myself," he said. "I tried to accommodate every request and concern. Now I'm going to shut completely down. I'm going to cleanse myself of the experience and come back whole."

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