Schools chief post offered to N.C. educator

But some criticize $300,000 package for Eric J. Smith

Owens calls it `excessive'

Deal won't be finalized until Charlotte official meets with community

Anne Arundel

April 25, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County school board named yesterday North Carolina's Eric J. Smith, one of the nation's most honored urban educators, as its next superintendent - and offered him a salary and benefits package worth $300,000.

The deal will not be finalized until after Smith, head of schools in Charlotte, N.C., meets with parents, teachers and county officials from the community May 6 and 7. While that review is not expected to derail the appointment, Anne Arundel's county executive was shocked yesterday by the compensation package, calling it "excessive."

Smith, 52, is superintendent of the 109,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, where he has earned a national reputation for boosting student performance, particularly among minorities, and for creating successful early education programs.

This year, he was named North Carolina Superintendent of the Year.

"It's a match made in heaven," said Anne Arundel school board member Vaughn L. Brown. "I'm absolutely delighted. Dr. Smith is everything we were looking for."

The board, however, had to pay top dollar to snare Smith. He will receive a base salary of $197,000, plus performance incentives and benefits that could bring the total package to $300,000, according to school board members.

"I nearly fell off my chair when I heard that," said County Executive Janet S. Owens, whose salary is $102,000. "I have been struggling to put every penny into schools, and this is a whammy. ... I absolutely believe the salary and compensation package is excessive for Anne Arundel County. It skews everything in the county."

Former Superintendent Carol S. Parham, who retired in December, was paid $141,000 last year to oversee Anne Arundel's 75,000 students.

By comparison, Montgomery County pays its schools chief $237,000 to run its 134,000-student system. And the Howard County superintendent earns $191,000 to run the 45,000-student system there.

"It left us no alternative," said Joseph H. Foster, the school board member who led the search. "To attract a mediocre candidate, we could have paid mediocre kind of money. To attract one of the top educators in the country, it was necessary."

Owens stressed that her issue is not with the new superintendent - she said he appears to be "outstanding" and is eager to meet him - but with the money offered and the secretive selection process.

Owens did not learn of the selection until her office received a fax yesterday afternoon. "The process is regrettable," she said. "It was too closed for too long."

In his visits to Anne Arundel County, Smith said he was impressed with the dedicated teachers and staff, the progress the system made under its last superintendent, and the potential for further growth. He says he also sees a good match between his principles and the school board's.

"It's a people business, and I think we need to continually remind ourselves of that," Smith said from Charlotte yesterday. "What we're about is very simple: Taxpayers pay for our services to educate their children successfully. Not some kids, but all kids, and not to an average level, but to a high level."

Members of the Charlotte community and the school board said they were saddened, but not shocked, by Smith's decision to leave after six years. He was recently a finalist for the superintendent job in Portland, Ore., and withdrew from that race just two weeks ago.

When told yesterday that Smith was headed to Anne Arundel, one Charlotte board member reacted with stunned silence. "I'm very, very disappointed," Molly Griffin finally said. "I think he's fantastic. He's not perfect, but he's pretty doggone close."

Smith began his career in education as a junior high school teacher in Orlando, Fla., before starting his climb up the administrative ranks. He was superintendent in Danville and Newport News, Va., before taking in 1996 the top job in Charlotte, that state's largest district and the 25th biggest in the country.

Smith has won a raft of awards along the way, including being named urban educator of the year in 2000 by the Council of Great City Schools. This year, he was one of four finalists for the national Superintendent of the Year award given by the American Association of School Administrators.

In Charlotte, Smith has focused on preparing children for school, closing the achievement gap between minority and white students and increasing the rigor of high school courses. Through his "Bright Beginnings" program, 3,000 4-year-olds from lower-income homes are in full-day preschool to bring them up to level.

"Catching up is incredibly expensive, and it usually doesn't work," Smith said. "If you start out behind, you generally stay behind. So we need to get ahead of the curve."

At the same time, Smith has vastly increased the numbers of students taking advanced placement high school courses. This year, 46 percent of Charlotte students are taking at least one AP course, and the number of blacks taking AP courses rose from 77 to 1,277 in a decade, according to the school system's records. Black students have posted a 46 percent gain on state reading tests in the past five years, compared with an 11 percent gain countywide.

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