A typical day in school chief's crowded job

Like others in his position, Balto. County's Hairston must juggle obligations

January 27, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

The car hurtled past a trailer park on one side and a tattoo parlor on the other. Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston put down his cell phone and looked out the windshield at a darkening sky. His thoughts turned to the next day.

But first, there were papers to sign, calls to return and a high school art exhibit to attend. It was almost 6 p.m., and the superintendent's day was not over. "I'm thinking about tomorrow," he said, "but I haven't even finished tonight."

Wednesday was a typically frenetic workday for Hairston. The schedule had the superintendent pleading for more funding in Annapolis, cheering fifth-graders in Chase and appreciating student artwork in Towson.

In between, there were the unexpected intrusions of freezing gas lines at a school bus filling station in Cockeysville and a broken boiler at a Woodlawn middle school, as well as demands from county officials for data on Hairston's proposed budget.

From the high-ceilinged halls of power in Annapolis to the yellow-tiled auditorium at Chase Elementary School, the day illuminated the many demands - political, financial, managerial, educational - on any superintendent of schools.

Superintendents have so many responsibilities these days that they are increasingly assigning educational and other duties to subordinates. And they face so much scrutiny that they don't hold office very long anymore - rarely more than three years.

The day also shed light on Hairston, the shy, down-to-earth son of a Navy sailor who used his football skills to gain a scholarship and become the first in his family to go to college.

Hairston worked his way from health teacher to principal to administrator in the Prince George's County schools before becoming superintendent in Clayton County, Ga., in 1995 and Baltimore County in 2000.

The workday begins

The workday began as Hairston's always do: checking e-mail and downing a pot of coffee before dawn at his Hunt Valley home. The superintendent, who makes $180,000 a year, rises early for uninterrupted time to think.

"One of the most important things I have to do as superintendent is reflect," he said. "Most people think you have to be boss, make decisions. That's why I have 17,000 employees."

Shortly after 8 a.m., he strode into his Towson office, barely having a chance to turn on the lights before staff rushed in.

They alerted him to the day's issues. Television had reported that some parents disliked the enrollment boundaries proposed for New Town High School in Owings Mills. A write-up of the school system's legislative agenda was behind schedule. There were those frozen gasoline lines.

With 108,600 students, 162 schools and a nearly billion-dollar budget, the Baltimore County school system experiences myriad issues every day - so many that Hairston delegates day-to-day responsibilities to his deputies.

It is an increasingly popular way of organizing school districts. From New York to San Diego, superintendents are more chief executive than educational leader. Some, who delegate instructional responsibilities, aren't even educators at all.

"There's been a movement acknowledging the job has to do more with politics and structure and corporatism, than reading and writing," said Bruce Cooper, a Fordham University professor who studies school superintendents.

A drive to Annapolis

That's the way it is for Hairston and that's why he's headed to the State House in Annapolis. His work is hamstrung by budgets set by Maryland and county politicians and officials, so he's planning to ask for more money.

During the drive, Hairston reads over his plea for more state funding. He had been reviewing the prepared remarks for two weeks, so he wouldn't have to read it word for word. "I just don't like a lot of canned, pretentious stuff," he said.

At the State House, Hairston waited an hour before standing before Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp to plead for funding to renovate seven middle schools and to buy new computers.

"Many of our schools are older and in need of major renovations and work," Hairston said. "We do not come to you with a frivolous request."

After the hearing, Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, a Baltimore County Democrat, stopped Hairston in a stairwell and reminded him to fix up Featherbed Lane Elementary School, where severe crowding has been ignored by officials for years. Later, Sen. Delores G. Kelley, another county Democrat, reminded the superintendent again about the need to renovate the Woodlawn school.

Once given deference to run the schools, superintendents are now buffeted by pressures from politicians, interest groups and unions.

The result is frequent turnover, with the average superintendent tenure in a big system like Baltimore County's now only two to three years.

"The superintendent is like the Lone Ranger, having to politically maneuver in a strange environment," said Thomas Glass, a University of Memphis professor who studies school superintendents.

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