School firing rule stems from 1916

Firings: A Hopkins graduate's scathing paper led to protections for superintendents from the politics of local school boards.

February 17, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The Maryland school board's pronouncement this week that only the state can fire county superintendents might have been news to most local school boards, but it's been the law of the state for more than eight decades. It can be traced back to a Johns Hopkins University graduate who is best known for overhauling American medical schools in the early 1900s.

That man is Abraham Flexner, and it was his 1916 scathing analysis of the condition of public education in Maryland that accounts for much of the educational governance structure still in existence today.

Asked by the Maryland General Assembly to come down from New York's Rockefeller General Education Board to assess the state's schools, Flexner found a system that was infested "with the vicissitudes of partisan politics."

He found local superintendents who were being picked for no reason other than their political connections and teachers who were hired and retained for "who they know, not what they know."

Flexner's solution? Require superintendents to be legitimate educators and teachers to earn certification.

"If we go back to the early 1900s, this sort of political chicanery must have been prevalent," says retired Baltimore County Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel, who studied Flexner's work in Maryland for his doctoral thesis. "He said that the state should professionalize the superintendency."

The legislature adopted much of Flexner's report, titled "Public Education in Maryland" and co-written with Frank P. Bachman.

Flexner - who died in 1959 - is much better remembered today for the major changes he led in American medical education through a Carnegie Foundation report, including shutting down ineffective schools and creating a system of about 65 well-equipped, well-funded training facilities. But his impact on public K-12 education is still felt here in Maryland - and not just because of this past week's state school board ruling on the firing of superintendents.

Flexner's study included recommendations such as creating the standard 180-day school year and making school attendance mandatory for children ages 7 to 16. His work applied only to Maryland's 23 county systems, as Baltimore's system was considered the crown jewel of the state, far more advanced than the 23 other rural districts.

To ensure local superintendents were qualified educators, Flexner suggested the state superintendent be required to approve their credentials. For stability, Flexner called for mandatory four-year appointments for superintendents, Dubel says. Since all 23 county school boards were appointed by the governor at that time, Flexner believed that four-year terms would ensure that superintendents didn't turn over just because a new politician made a few appointments.

And to ensure superintendents were treated like professional educators, Flexner essentially gave them the same protection that he recommended for teachers - something like tenure, if only for their entire four-year terms.

For a local superintendent to be fired, section 4-201 of the Annotated Code of Maryland calls for charges to be brought that he or she violated one of five standards: "immorality, misconduct in office, insubordination, incompetency or willful neglect of duty."

The decision for that firing rests exclusively with the state superintendent, who must hold a hearing if the local superintendent requests one.

A 1937 opinion from Attorney General Herbert R. O'Conor further clarified that interpretation, blocking Gov. Harry W. Nice from holding a hearing to fire a local superintendent.

"The Public Education Laws provide that, while County Superintendents are appointed by County Boards of Education, they may be removed only by the State Superintendent of Schools," Nice wrote in his three-paragraph legal opinion.

Typically, once an attorney general's opinion is issued, it's considered the proper interpretation of the law until the General Assembly changes it. Yet over the years, that process seemed to slip into obscurity among both superintendents and school boards.

"I didn't know about it," says Robert Gaddis, a 44-year veteran educator who served as superintendent of Worcester County from 1966 to 1978.

Then again, Gaddis says, things were different when he was superintendent. "The superintendent did not have a contract. ... You were appointed for four years, that was it. You didn't negotiate health insurance, life insurance or any of those fringe benefits," he says.

Maryland stands alone when it comes to the hiring and firing of local superintendents, says Julie Underwood, an attorney with the National School Boards Association, who is not aware of any other state that requires the state superintendent to approve the termination of a local superintendent. "It's very strange," she says.

During this past week's appeals hearing of Prince George's Superintendent Iris T. Metts, none of the attorneys could find examples of Maryland superintendents being fired by their local school boards.

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