Hairston calms fears in quest for change

Newcomer's plans for the system enjoy support in Balto. Co.

Two Leaders Foster New Vision For Schools

January 14, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | By Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

For all the hand-wringing that accompanied the hiring of Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston last spring, the educator's first six months at the helm of the 107,000-student system have been remarkably calm. And that's no accident.

Hairston has gone to great lengths to calm nervous staff members and parents. Evidence of that could be seen last week, when Hairston presented his first budget as superintendent. If he gets the $803 million he's requested, teachers will get a 5 percent raise and their own computers, nearly $7 million will be invested in upgrading school system technology, and troubled schools will get extra help.

At the end of his talk, administrators and parents clapped. Hairston beamed.

"One thing we aren't getting is that kind of yelling and screaming and the fear that is attached to the superintendent's office," Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said last week.

"I told Dr. Hairston that I thought things were going pretty well for him because of the lack of complaints or controversies," said County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz.

That's not to say everything has gone smoothly. At times, Hairston, 53, has taken actions that have caught staff and board members off guard.

He put 6,000 new computers in classrooms. But the move came without warning. As a result, principals and teachers were left scrambling for information about the new equipment.

He created and filled a new position - chief of staff - without explaining publicly how he'd cover the expense. He transferred the school system's director of technology to another post, then brought in a Texas-based computer consultant at $150 an hour to do the work. And, a week before he presented his budget, Hairston moved his chief financial officer to another job and installed a temporary replacement. The ex-financial officer resigned last week, effective in June.

Need for autonomy

Though the moves may have seemed abrupt, Board of Education members say Hairston - who likes to refer to himself as the system's CEO - needs a measure of autonomy to achieve his goals.

"That's one of the big things he's done so far, he's building his staff," said board member James E. Walker, who praised Hairston for his staffing choices, especially Christine M. Johns, whom he hired as deputy superintendent. "She supports him 100 percent."

So far, Hairston, who calls himself the most accessible superintendent in the state, seems to be enjoying broad support.

"At this point, I think it's going well," said school board President Donald L. Arnold. "We wanted someone to push the system to the 21st century, to take it to the next step. We were looking for someone to do that, and I think Dr. Hairston is that person."

School board members have always thought that. But when Hairston's name first surfaced as the board's choice for superintendent, some county officials and residents balked. They complained that the board had cloaked the search process in secrecy and that they needed to know more about Hairston, a former schools chief in Clayton County, Ga., who had clashed with board members there.

The County Council and County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger delayed his hiring for two weeks so that a series of public meetings with Hairston could be held. Those sessions proved successful, and Hairston got the job.

Since being hired, the superintendent has fostered a positive relationship with Ruppersberger, who initially worried Hairston might be another Stuart Berger, the superintendent whose brusque management style resulted in his early dismissal in 1995.

Ruppersberger pleased

Ruppersberger says he's pleased with Hairston's performance so far.

"I feel very good about his goals and about trying to help him reach those goals," said Ruppersberger. "We work well together."

As part of his campaign to calm the community and build support for coming changes, Hairston will invest about $550,000 in research and management surveys in his first year, even though he says he understands what the district needs to raise test scores.

The studies are for the worriers - people who would cast him as a change-agent if he moves ahead with new initiatives without proof.

"Everything will be reasoned," said Hairston.

That approach sits well with board members and parents.

`Contemplative approach'

"I've been very impressed with his contemplative approach," said board member Sanford V. Teplitzky. "It evidences the credibility of the decision ... and people feel more comfortable with the decision, even if they disagree."

"He is honest, and he is very interested in getting input from all stakeholders," said Boyd Crouse, chairman of the Southeast Area Educational Advisory Council.

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