Arundel schools narrow chief list

Board expected to name superintendent this week

`We're really very, very close'

Finalists not identified despite public's requests

April 21, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Joseph H. Foster, After a secretive, nationwide eight-month search, the Anne Arundel County school board is likely to break its silence and name a new superintendent this week.

Officials say they have narrowed the field to about five candidates - but they won't reveal any names. The board has rejected the community's call to open the process and appears to be looking beyond local favorite Kenneth P. Lawson, the interim superintendent.

The board also won't follow the lead of Howard County, which two years ago introduced the two finalists for schools chief to the public and broadcast interviews over county television.

"Who's going to get selected for this position is a board decision, and it will be based on merit. It won't be based on popularity," Joseph H. Foster, the board member leading the search, said last week.

"We're really very, very close," he added.

Whoever gets the job will take charge of a 75,000-student school system that is the fifth-largest in Maryland and 43rd-biggest in the nation. The job is considered a plum because of the stability of the system, the wealth of the county, and its proximity to Baltimore and Washington.

Anne Arundel students consistently score above the state average on tests, and the system is coming off the successful eight years of former Superintendent Carol S. Parham, who retired in December to teach at the University of Maryland, College Park. She was so popular that the school board named its headquarters for her.

As the board has sought a replacement for Parham, one name has surfaced publicly: Jane Hammond, superintendent of the Jefferson County, Colo., school system, which includes Columbine High School. Last week, Hammond indicated that she was interested in the job, but late Friday she withdrew her name from consideration, her spokesman said.

It was unclear yesterday why she dropped out, but the Jefferson County school board president said last week that the board was working hard to keep Hammond in Colorado.

Meanwhile, other names have been passed among county officials, educators and community leaders interested in the search. Some of those mentioned have turned out to have no interest.

For instance, some suggested that Cheryl Wilhoyte - who left the county as assistant superintendent in 1992 to lead the school system in Madison, Wis. - was a finalist. But in an interview Friday, she flatly denied that.

"I am not a candidate for the superintendency in Anne Arundel County or anywhere else," Wilhoyte said from her home in McLean, Va. She is an educational consultant.

Though county officials, parents and teachers have openly shared scraps of information on who the new schools chief might be, the board has maintained strict silence.

Board members say they must promise confidentiality to candidates to attract the best people and to prevent candidates from getting into trouble with their school systems.

"For a system as large and attractive as ours, it would create national attention to expose candidates who might be already in positions of great responsibility," said Anne Arundel board President Carlesa Finney.

Foster added: "Most people simply are not willing to go out on a limb that far. They don't want to be seen as a loser."

But many in the community - including Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens - have been anxious to get information on the search and are upset at being kept in the dark.

"It should not have been as closed as it's been right from the beginning," said Susie Jablinske, head of the Anne Arundel County teachers union, which asked to be included in the search but was rebuffed. "The fact that it has been a closed process naturally creates this fertile rumor mill."

Lawson, the interim chief, said last month after reporters questioned him that he had applied for the job. A 32-year veteran of the system and an Anne Arundel County native, he was associate superintendent for instruction under Parham.

He enjoys the respect and support of staff members, teachers and parents. But he did not make the finalist list and has not been interviewed for the job, sources familiar with the search said.

That apparent snub so outraged Lawson's supporters that he issued a statement urging them to quiet down, respect the search process and desist from stirring controversy that would undermine "the community-wide unity that is vital for our schools to best serve our students."

Across Maryland, school systems have taken different approaches to hiring superintendents. During its last search, Howard County opted for a more open process in an attempt to build more support for the chief. The two finalists met with parents and teachers in public forums.

"We tried very hard to reach out to county residents to let them feel like they were part of the system," said Jane B. Schuchardt, chairwoman of the Howard school board. "It's their school system. They needed to have some input as to the final choice."

At the same time, Baltimore County chose a more secretive process. Officials, teachers and residents were caught off guard in 2000 when the school board selected a superintendent candidate without formally introducing him to the community.

When information about Joe A. Hairston's career history - and feuds with past school boards and teachers - were reported by local newspapers, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and the County Council asked the board to delay Hairston's appointment so that parents, the teachers union and elected officials could meet with him. After the series of visits, Hairston was named superintendent. He has served in that position since.

Sun staff writer Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.

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