Board's choice to head schools makes rounds

Starting 2-day visit, Smith talks to Lawson, Owens

He defends pay package

N.C. educator expected to sign contract soon

Anne Arundel

May 07, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Starting a two-day get-acquainted tour of Anne Arundel County yesterday, probable superintendent Eric J. Smith visited a strings class at Annapolis High School and told the story of the only time he conducted an orchestra.

"It's all about how you begin," Smith said. "You have to begin with style. Snap your head back, throw the hair out of your eyes -- that means you really are a professional. Begin well, and after that everyone's in awe."

It wasn't clear whether he was still talking about music.

Smith's career is full of good beginnings. He quickly turned around school systems in North Carolina and Virginia, and now he wants to do the same for Anne Arundel. The school board is convinced that he can do it, and he has been offered the job of superintendent.

Smith, 52, hasn't signed a contract, but all indications are that he will within the month.

He and his wife arrived Sunday and spent the day exploring the county and informally house hunting. Smith has presented the school board in Charlotte, N.C., where he is schools chief, with terms related to his likely departure.

In Anne Arundel yesterday, Smith's 14-hour day was packed with meetings, including sessions with interim Superintendent Kenneth P. Lawson and County Executive Janet S. Owens, who has criticized the $300,000 compensation package the board offered Smith.

Owens repeated those concerns to Smith during their closed-door meeting. She found him to be "well qualified" and "very pleasant," said her spokesman, Matt Diehl.

In a meeting with reporters, Smith defended the compensation package, saying, "The challenge of moving public education forward is a high-risk, high-demand job, and it's tough, it's tough." He noted that his base salary in Anne Arundel, $197,000, would be a few hundred dollars more than he is being paid in Charlotte.

At a community forum in Severna Park last night, Smith told about 200 parents, teachers and residents that his top priority is academic achievement. He said more must be expected of students and that more rigorous course work must be developed.

"I consider it to be critically important that we raise the ceiling and we raise the floor for all children," Smith said, adding that he doesn't want to hear that some students can't succeed because of their backgrounds.

Several people questioned Smith about his support for arts education. They were alarmed by reports that he eliminated fifth-grade band in Charlotte this year as part of $23 million in budget cuts.

Smith responded: "The arts and other forms of engagement for students that aren't part of state tests are a critical, nonnegotiable component of what we do. It is not a frill, but essential."

Smith was well-received by the audience, and several people said they were impressed with his responses to questions. No one asked about his compensation package.

Smith also addressed concerns that the standardized curriculum he introduced in Charlotte -- which teachers there said stifled their creativity -- would be transplanted to Anne Arundel County.

"There is no one blueprint for any school system in America," he said. But he spoke of the need for giving teachers "clarity" in what they're supposed to be teaching.

"It doesn't necessarily mean a loss of creativity," he said in an interview. "If I'm going in for heart surgery tomorrow, I hope we have some clear definition of what the heart surgeon is going to do. There are right answers."

Smith had lunch with the county Chamber of Commerce at Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis, where he impressed members with his command of the issues facing Anne Arundel schools, said Bob Burdon, the chamber's president and chief executive officer.

"We found him to be a top-notch candidate," Burdon said. "He listens very intently, and he works to bring the different concerns out there together and formulate how to best go about making changes."

Smith will conclude his visit to the county today at school board headquarters on Riva Road, where he is scheduled to meet with the county's legislative delegation at 11 a.m., then publicly with the County Council at 12:30 p.m., parents at 3 p.m., teachers at 4:30 p.m. and students at 5:30 p.m.

Next week, the Anne Arundel board will visit Smith in Charlotte. That will be the last step before a contract is signed, some say.

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