A temporary leader for school system?

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September 03, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

DON'T BELIEVE Charles I Ecker when he says he's not looking for a permanent job as Carroll County school superintendent.

If there's one thing that "Aw shucks, Chuck" has learned in a decade as politician, after 40 years as a school teacher/administrator, it's that disarming modesty is an exceptionally effective political tool.

Especially when combined with the tough-minded decision-making that has been his hallmark as Howard County executive and as deputy school superintendent in that jurisdiction.

At 71, Ecker has no hankering for retirement, those who know him insist. He has been eagerly searching for a leadership job since he lost the Republican gubernatoroial nomination to Ellen Sauerbrey two years ago, after completing two terms as Howard executive.

His name was floated as president of the Columbia Association (the homeowners group that serves as de facto government for that unincorporated city) after the last director stepped down amid controversy.

While running his eponymous education consulting firm since 1998, Mr. Ecker had been exploring possibilities of a superintendent position. The Carroll job seemed to suit him, with a 10-month term to test the waters and for his native county to test him.

Mr. Ecker certainly seems to suit the job. The system is in obvious need of an administrator who can restore public trust in the management of the Carroll schools and assert firm financial control of the budget. An effective public relations effort is perhaps the greatest need. Mr. Ecker's successful political experience should serve him well in this regard.

He's known as an honest, open individual who's willing to listen to all sides and to seek diverse opinion. That doesn't mean he will pander to all, or cave in to every demand. In the crucible of agonizing Howard County budget cuts and job reductions in the early 1990s, Mr. Ecker showed he had the ability to take the heat and yet temper decisions when necessary.

The interim status of Mr. Ecker's appointment over the next academic year will help him in healing some of the wounds that have erupted over the past two years regarding school construction mismanagement and cover-ups.

He won't have a long-term job to protect and he can expeditiously implement the recommendations recently made in a performance audit by consultants and in the Bennett report, the investigative study of construction projects by a Baltimore law firm.

As an outsider, Mr. Ecker won't be subject to the lingering suspicion attached to the current administration. He starts with a clean slate, although he'll have to carefully deal with those administrators. And he'll take over just before two new members of the school board are elected in November. So they won't be campaigning this fall on what he has done or hasn't done. That's a distinct advantage.

To be sure, the Uniontown native is no miracle worker. He's got a lot to learn in a hurry about this particular school system. He left here as an assistant superintendent 33 years ago.

With two new high schools being built, and no final solution to a botched sewage treatment system at Francis Scott Key High, there's a lot that can still go wrong.

The county grand jury is still officially investigating the school construction program, in spite of the long silence there.

Mr. Ecker's strength is in the business and financial management of schools. That's where he spent most of his career, until retiring as Howard deputy superintendent in 1989. And that's where he's most needed in Carroll.

The academic performance of the public schools has not been much of an issue. There's strong belief in the excellence of overall instruction, even if some indicators of achievement have stagnated. So that's not what the interim school chief has to address.

That gives Mr. Ecker a good deal of leeway in dealing with administrative and leadership issues. There's bound to be a honeymoon period, given the abrupt retirement of William H. Hyde in the face of rising criticism.

But he'll have to show more than an interim caretaker's enthusiasm for the job if the required reforms are to be made and fully accepted. There's every expectation that he'll do so and that could lead to a longer term engagement back where Mr. Ecker started his career as a teacher in 1951.

When he served as co-chair last year of the project "Howard County - A United Vision," it was clear to those who worked with him that Mr. Ecker longed to return to the public limelight. (That project produced a report on ways to unify rapidly growing Howard through community goals.)

The Carroll opportunity fits not only his paper credentials, but also his fiscally conservative outlook and his country-boy style. Not to worry about his resume, however: he's got the required Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina.

The interim appointment of Mr. Ecker came as a surprise to most people, but a welcome one. He's viewed as a politician by most people these days, despite his school system consulting. And there was serious talk of appointing someone in the current administration to the temporary post.

But Mr. Ecker can be terribly persuasive, as anyone who's seen him wield an auction gavel at a fund-raiser can attest.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County. This column originally appeared August 20. Fraser Smith, The Sun's Howard County editorial writer, is on vacation.

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