Musical-chair superintendents

February 25, 2003

BIG-CITY and big-county school chiefs are sitting pretty these days. The latest example is Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who is about to get his employment contract extended though it doesn't expire for more than a year. Hired only 2 1/2 years ago after a secretive "national search," Mr. Hairston is rumored to be a possible successor to departing Prince George's County Superintendent Iris T. Metts.

Mr. Hairston won't be the first metropolitan superintendent recently to enjoy the fruits of "creative retention." Montgomery County's board started sweet-talking Superintendent Jerry D. Weast a year before it renewed his contract this month.

And well more than a year before Howard County Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's contract was to expire, the county board last fall announced its "intention" to renew it in 2004. Of course, no one knows the makeup or disposition of the elected Howard board two years from now, so if Mr. O'Rourke isn't renewed then, the current board pledged to pay him the equivalent of a year's salary, about $200,000. Nice work if you can get it.

These maneuvers make a mockery of employment contracts, but they underscore the difficulties urban and suburban school boards have in recruiting and retaining top executives. The job is so tough - some say it's harder than being mayor - that there's a shallow pool of men and women willing and able to take it on. They tend to follow each other around the country, stopping, as they say in baseball, for a cup of coffee.

These big systems, often struggling academically and financially, desperately need stability, and they don't get it with superintendents coming and going. School boards can't stop the game of musical-chair superintendents - they can't legally prevent anyone from resigning - but they can do a better job of recruiting top executives. If their hiring judgments are sound, they have less chance of having to buy out a year or more of a failed superintendent's contract.

Contracts should be offered with generous incentives for good performance. Contracts also should be enforced. A school chief who publicly searches for another job, as Baltimore CEO Carmen V. Russo appeared to be doing last year, is sending a message that the job in hand is inferior. The message in return should be that there will be no rewards for breaking a contract.

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