Hello, Mr. Smith

May 06, 2002

WHEN ERIC J. Smith, Anne Arundel County school superintendent designee, arrives in Annapolis today, he will embark on a 48-hour "getting-to-know you" tour. PTA members, leaders of the teachers union, County Council members, state lawmakers, the mayor, the county executive -- they've all been invited to meet the man tapped to lead Arundel's 75,000-student district.

And unless Mr. Smith, the highly touted school superintendent from Charlotte, N.C., makes a major gaffe or underwhelms the various political and educational constituencies, he'll most likely be at the helm at Riva Road.

The 52-year-old avid sailor hasn't yet signed his contract (for a whopping $300,000 in salary and benefits), but the school board's tightly controlled selection process virtually ensured his appointment. The board wooed a top-flight, nationally recognized educator -- exactly the kind of candidate it had in mind -- without exposing his interest in the job and subjecting him to possible repercussions at home.

But did the board's decision to protect the privacy of Mr. Smith and others compromise the public interest?

The teachers union says it would have preferred a greater role in the process. Representatives of parent-teacher associations and the principals organization, however, were satisfied that their voices were heard. That's because the consultant hired by the school board to conduct the search met with the respective constituencies and sent out questionnaires to solicit criteria for selecting a superintendent.

Selecting a school superintendent varies from county to county and state to state, and some are more open than others.

Baltimore County kept its superintendent search under wraps, but its elected officials delayed hiring superintendent Joe Hairston for two weeks until public hearings could be held. He got the job anyway.

Howard County residents knew from the start that finalists for the superintendent's job would visit the district before a choice was made. The positive response to John R. O'Rourke, a superintendent from upstate New York, resulted in the board offering him the job. He accepted.

Anne Arundel's board leaders say Mr. Smith's appointment is not yet a done deal -- but it's hard to imagine that a contract won't be signed. The board members point to the caliber of the candidate as proof that the system worked. The county got an educator with a proven record, not one "who was on the way up." And they say the prime beneficiaries of the process ultimately will be the students of Anne Arundel.

The board members' points are salient. From the start, the board was upfront in saying the process would be closed to the public. That would have been the time to wage a campaign for greater openness. A public meeting at Meade High School in November to hear from parents drew exactly two people.

Now the focus should be on Mr. Smith and how he intends to improve student achievement, cut the absentee rate, boost participation in advanced placement courses, close the performance gap of minority students and carry out new state initiatives for kindergartners.

If Anne Arundel countians want to get their money's worth in an austere budget time, they have to be willing to ask Mr. Smith tough questions during his visit and then ensure that he lives up to his stellar reputation. Otherwise, the next two days will be a waste of time.

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