In an unexpected move, Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham -- currently the longest-serving top educator in the Baltimore area -- told the county school board that she will retire Jan. 1 after eight years at the helm of one of the largest school systems in Maryland.
Parham told the board in a closed-session meeting late yesterday that she has taken a professorship at the University of Maryland's College of Education in College Park.
By giving seven months' notice, she said, she is giving the board time to conduct a search for her replacement.
"I think it's a dream job," Parham, 52, said of her new post. "I've had lots of offers but none quite as appealing as the opportunity to shape education for the future."
When Parham took over in Anne Arundel, the school system was in turmoil after the previous administration was hurt by a sex scandal involving a high school teacher and students. She is the district's first female superintendent and its first African-American.
With her assertive style and forceful personality, she quickly steadied the school system.
At school board meetings, she could silence her staff by raising a finger.
In recent years, she has teamed with County Executive Janet S. Owens to ensure a greater commitment of dollars to education.
"Let me say: Our loss is their gain," Owens said last night of Parham's coming departure. "I want you to know that what we're doing has really been an extraordinary partnership."
A Baltimore native, Parham began her career in city schools, teaching eighth- and ninth-grade social studies.
She went on to work in Howard County, where she worked in the school system's personnel office before she was snapped up in 1989 by Anne Arundel County and became director of human resources. She was named interim superintendent in 1993. The appointment became permanent in 1994.
Her school board was startled by yesterday's announcement of a decision she made last week.
"This was not something that I was expecting, but I think it's wonderful, wonderful news for Dr. Parham," said board vice president Vaughn L. Brown Jr. "I certainly felt like it knocked the wind out of me ... and that was not something that I alone felt."
Parham's January departure "allows lots of time for exploring and then working the details of" a successor, Brown said. "Right now, it's just time ... to celebrate Dr. Parham."
The average tenure for a school superintendent is said to be 2 1/2 to three years. "I've gone well beyond that," Parham said.
Parham leaves on her own terms and at a time when she remains at the height of her popularity. Many of those superintendents with shortened tenures can't say the same.
"I felt the time was right for me," she said. "It's a big, wide world out there, and I think there are lots of opportunities out there for me."
Her tenure, though, has not been quiet. She and the board had many public disagreements with former County Executive John G. Gary over how the school system spent its money.
Last year, Parham was the target of racially charged death threats after she announced plans to temporarily move students from a predominantly white south county elementary school to predominantly black Annapolis Middle School during building renovations.
And she has backed a staff plan to double the amount of time spent on reading in middle schools, starting with next year's sixth-graders. Parents have complained over and over that the change will come at the expense of important arts electives, but she has stood firm.
Married with two grown children, Parham will have some free moments come January, when she won't have to be consumed by her job.
"This has so much become my life, and everyone says I'll miss it," she said. "[Will] I miss being totally absorbed every minute and being five or six places at the same time and getting those calls in the middle of the night, or having snow predicted and being able to sleep through the night?
"Life is good," she said.
Sun staff writer Alice Lukens contributed to this article.