Finding school chief is board's duty

THE EDUCATION BEAT

Job: Hiring a superintendent should not be done by plebiscite.

May 05, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE MORE democratic and open the search for an educational leader, the greater the chance of foul-ups.

We have only to compare the recent open search for a superintendent in Portland, Ore., and the closed search for a chief in Anne Arundel County.

All four of the nationally prominent finalists withdrew in Portland after each had met for more than 20 hours with parent, community, business and religious groups. One candidate was left hanging for weeks while the school board dawdled.

The Oregonian newspaper in Portland criticized the search as "one of the more rudderless, indecisive and hesitant processes in education history."

Meanwhile, one of the four Portland finalists, Eric J. Smith, superintendent in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system in North Carolina, quietly worked out a deal with Arundel, which will pay him $300,000, a record for a Maryland school chief.

Smith will be "reviewed" by community groups this week - after he has been offered the job. (There's still a chance he could stay in Charlotte, but the board there would have to come up with $104,000 just to match Anne Arundel's offer.)

Hiring a chief is a school board's most important duty, which is why it should be left primarily to school boards.

If boards turn the process into a plebiscite, they're asking for trouble. They're eliminating some strong candidates who don't want it known they're job-hunting. And they're encouraging candidates to lie about their intentions.

I've witnessed two free-for-all superintendent searches in Baltimore, both of which went awry. In 1991, community groups interviewed finalists for the city's top school job and reached consensus that the best candidate was David W. Hornbeck, former Maryland schools superintendent and a nationally known reformer.

But Hornbeck was of the wrong race in the eyes of a few black leaders. They persuaded Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to intervene. He did, and the choice was Walter G. Amprey, an associate superintendent in Baltimore County who had never been in charge of a large organization.

Twenty years earlier, Roland N. Patterson, a young African-American administrator from Seattle, was being interviewed by the school board while community leaders looked on.

Patterson's statement that the nation's jails were packed with "political prisoners" pleased many - this was near the end of the Vietnam era and three years after the riots of 1968 - although a couple of lawyers on the board were apoplectic. Patterson was hired on a split vote. Four turbulent years later, he was fired on another split vote.

State schools' Web site gets unauthorized visitor

How do you get two assistant state school superintendents to call you on a Sunday morning?

Robert Astrove of Rockville did it a week ago by e-mailing the officials the news that he had just downloaded from the state schools' Web site the test scores of disabled children in Montgomery County.

The trove included personal information such as names, ID numbers, school names and scores on a test that severely disabled children take as an alternative to MSPAP, the state testing program.

Astrove, a parent advocate in Montgomery special education circles, said testing chief Mark Moody and special education chief Carol Ann Baglin (both of whom were working Sunday!) telephoned almost immediately and quickly closed the electronic "backdoor" through which he had been able to slip.

"I was shocked," Astrove said. "I e-mailed as soon as I realized what I had. This wasn't rocket science. Anyone in the free and not-so-free world could have been in there. ... It had to have violated a pile of federal laws."

Moody said the situation wasn't quite that dramatic. Astrove, he said, used software that most people don't have on their home computers. (Astrove is a self-employed software developer.)

In the two weeks during which the system was vulnerable, said Moody, Astrove was the only unauthorized visitor to the site.

Still, said Moody, the state has no excuse for allowing Astrove's entry. "We're redesigning," he said.

Abell Foundation promotes research on city's problems

The Abell Foundation has established a $5,000 annual award for the student at the Johns Hopkins University who prepares the best paper on a pressing issue facing Baltimore.

Full-time Hopkins students are eligible for the award, which will be given through the Institute for Policy Studies, Hopkins' public policy research and teaching arm.

The award is intended to "encourage fresh thinking about the challenges facing Baltimore" and "to provide an incentive for promising students interested in urban problems to come to Baltimore," said foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr.

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