School finalist wins support of executive

Ruppersberger lauds Hairston, who is likely to be appointed tonight

`Will do excellent job'

County chief says his reservations were over process, not candidate

March 14, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger threw his support yesterday behind Joseph A. Hairston to head the Baltimore County school system -- two weeks after asking the school board to delay the Georgia educator's appointment.

"I feel very good about his ability to lead the school system and his management style and his fairness," said Ruppersberger, adding that his problem wasn't with Hairston but with the secret process by which the school board made its selection late last month. "He will do an excellent job."

The Board of Education is expected tonight to appoint the 52-year-old Hairston as superintendent of schools, making him the first African-American to head the 107,000-student school system.

He would start July 1.

Ruppersberger, who had remained noncommittal about Hairston until yesterday, met with the nominee for about three hours several weeks ago. He grilled Hairston about his experiences as superintendent in Clayton County, Ga., and the reasons for his resignation from that school system in January after five years.

Before that, Hairston worked for 27 years as a teacher, high school principal and administrator in Prince George's County.

"I was very tough with him, and I asked some hard questions -- about his background and some of the issues in Georgia," Ruppersberger said yesterday. "I said very strongly that we don't need to tear down this school system but to build it up."

School board members were ready to appoint Hairston at a meeting Feb. 29 to replace Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, who will retire in June. But Ruppersberger and the County Council requested the two-week delay so members of the public and county legislators could meet Hairston.

The 11th-hour change of plan put Hairston in an awkward position. He traveled to Towson expecting to be named the next superintendent. Instead, he was forced to return to the area for an intense week of public and private meetings with everyone from school nurses to high school principals.

At forums with parents and teachers, Hairston was barraged with questions about his management style and views on student achievement -- even his personal life. Many of those who met with Hairston said they had worried he might be another Stuart Berger -- the contentious superintendent who was fired in 1995.

Many of those who talked with Hairston said they found him to be intelligent and open-minded.

"I look forward to working with him," said Anthony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "I was impressed with his approach to management and his approach to education."

Hard feelings exist, however, regarding the way the school board conducted its search.

Although consultants met with groups including parents and teachers early in the process to ask what kind of superintendent they wanted, much of the search was done in secret. School board members refused to release the names of the top three finalists even after county officials requested them.

School Board President Donald L. Arnold and other board members have been critical of recent media coverage of Hairston, whose clashes with a group of teachers in Georgia -- including three who serve on the Clayton County Board of Education -- have been well-documented by newspapers in Georgia and Maryland.

At a recent meeting with union leaders in Towson, a teacher asked Arnold if he'd do anything differently in retrospect.

"I'd burn The Sun's presses," he said.

When asked recently for a list of people Baltimore County school board members interviewed in Georgia regarding Hairston, Arnold told one reporter: "I'm not going to do your homework for you."

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