Balto. Co. schools chief making his mark quickly

But no-nonsense style fuels reputation as a harsh manager

May 22, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston unveiled his plan for reorganizing 30 of his top administrators last month, he did it without giving the school board much notice. Two hours, to be exact.

And the administrators affected by the plan? Hairston met individually with them before the board meeting but wouldn't tell them how their jobs might change. Those who were promoted and those who were demoted found out later - some at an assembly of 200 staff members.

Since taking over in July, Hairston has created a chief of staff position, moved 6,000 computers into schools and released a long-awaited report on low student achievement at Woodlawn High School - all with little or no notice.

On April 24, he presented his administrative restructuring plan a few hours before the regular school board meeting. Board members, with one abstention, approved it unanimously that night.

Episodes such as these have contributed to Hairston's reputation as a superintendent who acts quickly and without warning. And that, some critics say, has stifled debate on important issues.

"I think the reorganization was done swiftly, like the French guillotine, on purpose," said Meg O'Hare, chairwoman of the Northeast Area Educational Advisory Council. "I guess he figured that there wouldn't be any time for anyone to do anything. But what could you do? He is the one in charge."

But others say Hairston is feeling pressure - from politicians, the school board and the community - to reform the school system and make his mark quickly.

"He feels that he has to make a difference in these schools or he will tarnish his own reputation," said Ella White Campbell, a Randallstown community activist. "I think he's realized that if he doesn't make some measurable changes and make those changes quickly, his goose is cooked."

In interviews with The Sun, Hairston said that he has "always been fair, almost to a fault." And he disagrees with the perception that he is impulsive or that he tries to keep staff and parents in the dark.

Hairston said he could have made immediate changes when he started last summer but waited to allow parents and administrators to get to know him.

"Now I have to wonder if I didn't wait too long," he said. "Maybe I gave people more time to dig their holes and undermine me."

Regardless of his motives, Hairston's management style has raised some concerns - not only because of his tendency to launch major initiatives with little notice, but also because of complaints that he treats subordinates harshly. Two school board members said those issues are likely to be raised in his annual evaluation.

Board member John A. Hayden, who abstained from the April 24 vote because he wanted more time to study the reorganization plan, wants Hairston to provide more information sooner to parents and administrators.

"It is my hope that the superintendent will include the public in our decision-making processes as much as is reasonably possible," Hayden said. "The more inclusive we are the better off we will be in the long run."

School board President Donald L. Arnold said that he has heard complaints about the way Hairston treats his staff but that he has no reason to believe the superintendent isn't fair.

"Sometimes when people are addressed by the head of the unit and they don't like what they hear, they say they were yelled at," Arnold said. "I've asked Dr. Hairston about these complaints, and he gives me a completely different picture."

When Hairston, 53, took over the 107,000-student school system - the third largest in the state - he faced a number of pressing concerns. Woodlawn High parents were complaining about such issues as missing textbooks and inexperienced teachers. Schools lacked sufficient computers. Perhaps most important, the system was struggling to address a persistent achievement gap between black and white students.

"When I arrived, I realized that this was not a typical situation," Hairston said recently at a dinner meeting with parents. "I realized that it would be impossible for me to just walk in to this school system and move forward."

Hairston recognizes that not all students get the same quality education and wants to do something about it.

"Nine high schools in this system carry the SAT scores for the rest of the system," Hairston said. "Compare our flagship high schools with the others and the SAT scores at those other schools are at least 100 points behind."

Hairston wants to strike a balance at the school system's headquarters in Towson, too. His reorganization is a first step. He said he wants to help employees achieve new career heights.

Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association and a Baltimore County teacher for three decades, said educators expect Hairston to improve the system's reputation.

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