Ruling shocks school boards

Local right to fire superintendents is denied by state

February 13, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

School board members across Maryland woke up yesterday to find they had lost the right to fire their superintendents, and they weren't happy about it.

That right belongs exclusively to the state superintendent of schools, under a ruling issued Monday night by the Maryland State Board of Education. The decision surprised - and infuriated - many local school officials.

"When a local board loses control of that one person, then we might as well just let the state board run all the local school systems in its infinite wisdom," said a frustrated Susan W. Krebs, president of the Carroll County school board.

Local board members are used to testy relationships with their superintendents, and they're also used to being the ones in charge. Now, they say, the state has overstepped its bounds and their authority has been undermined.

Baltimore's school board is now the only one in Maryland that has the right to fire its schools chief, thanks to a 5-year-old partnership with the state. Everyone else must go to the state.

"They're taking away the powers of an elected board, and they're punishing the community that elected those people," said Judie Thelen of the Allegany County school board. "If we hire them, then we should have the right to fire them."

Maryland appears to be the only state in the country that doesn't allow local school boards to fire superintendents, said Dave Griffith, spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education.

"I can't think of another state that does it this way," he said. States are often reluctant to step into local educational issues, he said, because Americans have historically regarded schools as local institutions.

"Local boards of education are as American as apple pie and Chevrolet," Griffith said. "But we are moving toward a more state-based education system, and this is perhaps another manifestation of that."

The state ruling Monday occurred during a battle for control of the Prince George's County school system that has spilled out of the county's borders. On Feb. 2, the county school board fired Superintendent Iris T. Metts - a move that some state officials saw as political and vindictive. The state decision reversed that termination.

And yesterday, the state House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to a measure to create a crisis management board to strip the Prince George's school board of much of its power. The House is to have a final vote on the bill today, and it will then go to the Senate.

Not surprisingly, current and former school superintendents were not nearly as upset as school board members at the state ruling.

"It very well could change the relationship between the superintendent and the local board," said the interim schools chief in Carroll County, Charles I. Ecker. He said jokingly that he'd have to be nicer to the state superintendent now.

Stuart Berger, who was forced out of his job as Baltimore County schools superintendent in 1995, called the state ruling "a shocker."

Berger, who was often at odds with County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, joked: "If I had known that, I would have quit worrying about Ruppersberger."

But he said the ruling changes little for superintendents. "Any superintendent who believes that he works for someone other than that local board is making a fatal mistake," he said. Berger was given $300,000 to leave the Baltimore County post.

Metts apparently was the first superintendent to be fired in Maryland. School boards and superintendents that don't get along often negotiate a settlement for the superintendent to leave.

In recent years, even unpopular school chiefs walked away with hefty buyouts instead of being fired. In 1997, Baltimore schools gave Walter G. Amprey a package valued at $250,000 to leave. A year later, Harford County schools bought out Jeffery N. Grotsky for $271,000.

So, in practice, the state ruling doesn't change much: Local boards didn't fire superintendents before this week, and now they definitely won't.

But superintendents said the ruling wouldn't make them less responsive to their local boards.

"Local boards are still the boss," said Carol S. Parham, who stepped down as Anne Arundel superintendent in December.

Sun staff writers Liz Bowie, Stephanie Desmon, Howard Libit, Jennifer McMenamin and Tanika White contributed to this article.

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