Hairston to head Balto. Co. schools

After Ga. educator meets public, board gives unanimous OK

March 15, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Joseph A. Hairston -- a hands-on educator with high expectations for teachers, students and parents -- was appointed superintendent of schools in Baltimore County last night.

The appointment came after Hairston, who was offered the job Feb. 29, spent the past two weeks meeting with county and school officials, who wanted time to get to know the Georgia educator.

"It's a happy day for Joe Hairston," he said after a unanimous vote by the 12-member Board of Education in Towson.

He received a standing ovation from a roomful of well-wishers and made a quick phone call to his wife.

"I get to come back and make a contribution in my home state," said Hairston. "Now I can say, with a sigh of relief, that I have a job."

Hairston was raised in Maryland and was a teacher and administrator in Prince George's County for 27 years before becoming superintendent of the Clayton County, Ga., school system in 1995.

Hairston's joy, and his smile, grew greater with every congratulatory handshake and hug he received from board members, who endured tense moments as teachers and parents grilled their No. 1 pick during recent weeks.

Still, board members were confident that Hairston, 52, would win over skeptics, including members of the PTA, the teachers union, the County Council and County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who endorsed the educator Monday.

School board President Donald L. Arnold, who conducted interviews with school officials in Clayton County, said he never doubted that Hairston had the experience and intelligence to be Baltimore County's 17th superintendent since 1853, and the first black one.

"We heard him described as an instructional leader, who knows curriculum and is focused on student achievement, as the consummate professional," said Arnold. "We were told he is a man whose passion is education, whose key question is, `How will this help a child to be successful?' "

Board members were criticized by many -- including the County Council, parents, school employees and the news media -- for the secret process used to select Hairston from among 29 applicants. Last night, board members were smiling. Finally, they had Hairston.

How much Hairston will be paid to lead the 107,000-student school system during the next four years was unclear.

"We're still negotiating," said Hairston, who will remain on the payroll in Clayton County through June 2001. He resigned as superintendent there in January.

Hairston said he will fly today to Jonesboro, Ga., where he lives with his wife, Lillian, a high school history teacher. He will return to Towson next week to begin transition talks with Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, who will retire in June. Hairston will start July 1.

The board had planned to vote to appoint Hairston as superintendent at a Feb. 29 meeting, but Ruppersberger and the County Council had other plans.

At the last minute, board members bowed to a request from county officials and delayed their vote for two weeks to give the public a chance to meet Hairston.

`Grueling process'

During that time, he talked with hundreds of people -- parents, teachers, legislators, school nurses and custodians -- at times in a nervous sweat.

"It was a grueling process," he said yesterday.

Most who met Hairston were impressed. They liked what he said about holding teachers and administrators to high professional standards, and encouraging students to set lofty academic goals. He asked parents to maintain their vigilance and to work with him to make schools better places to learn.

`Sense of comfort'

"Teachers emerged from these meetings with a much greater sense of comfort," said Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. "A sense of concern will remain, however, until the new superintendent puts his words into appropriate practice."

Hairston, whose 31 years in public education have presented him with numerous obstacles, will likely be up to the new challenge.

As principal of Suitland High School in Prince George's County, he transformed a troubled campus where drugs and violence prevailed into a model of education reform.

Visit from Reagan

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan visited the campus to learn firsthand about Hairston's school-based management plan.

Hairston, principal of Suitland from 1986 to 1989, took bold steps to improve the school. He banned pep rallies, closed the campus during lunch and transferred teachers who refused to play by his rules, according to a profile in The Sun in 1988.

"He took a school that had little direction and developed a comprehensive plan that included all the participants and got them to work together," said John Murphy, a former Prince George's school superintendent who was a mentor to Hairston.

"Joe has all the skills to negotiate that kind of process," Murphy said. "It was all done quite smoothly."

Classroom computers

In Clayton County, Hairston persuaded voters to approve a five-year local-option sales tax to raise money for new schools. He put four computers into every classroom and created a highly praised high school computer repair program.

"There was a lot of consternation -- white and black -- about his leaving Clayton County schools," said Glenn Dowell, executive director of the Youth Empowerment Project in Jonesboro.

"Now, it's finally sinking in that we no longer have him. He was a superintendent extraordinaire."

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