Where protection is needed

Superintendents: State law properly shields school chiefs from arbitrary firings.

February 19, 2002

THE STATE school board is taking a lot of guff for asserting that Maryland law prohibits local school boards from firing their superintendents without the state school chief's approval. But the detractors are off the mark.

This law ensures some stability and fairness in the relationships between local boards and the leaders they hire.

The added job security could help Maryland districts attract top-notch candidates who'd be put off by precarious employment situations. And it could help prevent the kind of willy-nilly firing that the state board had to undo earlier this month, when the Prince George's County school board unfairly canned Iris Metts.

In a state that so desperately needs qualified, inventive and dedicated school leaders, oversight of the relationship between local chiefs and their boards makes a lot of sense.

This would be another matter if the law saddled school boards with poor leaders or protected incompetents from just dismissals. It doesn't. The law merely outlines the reasons for which an outright firing can take place, and requires the state superintendent to sign off on the decision.

Incompetence. Insubordination. Immorality or misconduct. Any of those things can result in a firing, according to the law.

The law also permits school boards to negotiate financial settlements with superintendents whom they no longer want as leaders. Just as in other states, that's typically the way jurisdictions end their relationships with school leaders in Maryland. Outright firings are unusual.

It might help here to think of a superintendent's employment status in the same context as any other contractual employee's. Yes, the contract has to have performance standards and the employee must be held accountable when those standards aren't met. But one side in a contractual relationship cannot be allowed to summarily abandon the deal without fair compensation.

You can't do that in baseball or the finance world. You shouldn't be able to do it in education, either.

The truth is that over the past decade, good superintendents have become harder to find and even harder to keep -- largely because the job entails high stress but offers little security. Especially in large urban districts (including Baltimore City and Prince George's County, which between them have gone through no fewer than seven leaders in the past five years), the superintendent tends to be a marked man or woman whose livelihood is somewhat dependent on a school board's or a community's whim.

Maryland's law counteracts that volatility, and offers to prospective superintendents some assurance that they can't suddenly or inexplicably be dumped.

That can only be an aid in the efforts to attract the best and brightest to lead our educational jurisdictions.

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