Balto. Co. lawmakers criticize Hairston

Schools head accused of unresponsiveness

May 20, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Two Baltimore County councilmen berated Superintendent Joe A. Hairston last week, calling him unresponsive to ideas and suggestions for county schools.

Hairston and about 30 members of his senior staff attended a budget hearing before the council Thursday on a request for more than $570 million in county money for the schools. The money is for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

When county departments appear at the council's budget hearings, the exchange is usually collegial. Council members said when they ask questions of most department heads, they get answers, like throwing a ball and having it bounce back at them.

"When I throw it to you people, it's like throwing a pile of mud against the wall: It just stays there," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican. "It doesn't come back. We raised the issues. ... We've never gotten an answer and nothing seems to change."

McIntire said after the hearing that his comments were directed specifically at Hairston.

Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, disputed McIntire's assessment of the superintendent, defending Hairston's communication skills. "I find that, more often than not, it is the ball against the wall," he said. Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, agreed with Moxley.

When it was Hairston's turn, the superintendent said it's not always possible to respond quickly. "I hear requests every day, all day from constituents throughout the community," he told the council. Public education, he said, "does not lend itself to respond immediately to requests ... from special interest groups."

"Immediate" responses, in the school system vernacular, can mean "six weeks to six months to a year," Hairston said.

"I want to be responsive," he said. "I want to have an open dialogue. Sometimes patience and tolerance is going to be a virtue for all of us."

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville Democrat, said he has been patient. The county gives 50 cents of each dollar to the county schools and has no say in how policy is implemented, he said. Last month, when the council had lunch with the superintendent in its chambers, Kamenetz asked Hairston for responses on two issues.

Hairston was asked whether he might consider reopening Campfield Early Childhood Center as an elementary school. The center houses kindergarten and pre-kindergarten pupils, who would otherwise attend four other schools. By returning the children to their home schools and adjusting boundaries, Kamenetz said, crowding would be relieved throughout the area.

He also suggested, as a way to alleviate middle school crowding, that the school system consider returning to elementary schools that go up to sixth grade, followed by junior and senior highs. That model is out of favor in educational circles.

Kamenetz said he never got a response to either idea. He was under the impression Hairston would take the issues to the school board and was angered to find board President Donald L. Arnold was learning about them for the first time at Thursday's meeting. Kamenetz told Hairston that the superintendent is "not always receptive to change."

Hairston said the Campfield issue is part of a larger study of enrollments in the northwestern part of the county and is being considered. "I can't afford to say a lot of things publicly prematurely," he said Friday.

The heated discussion had little effect on the matter at hand. The council cut just $1 million from the county executive's budget proposal for schools.

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