On May 8, Arvis C. Tucker walked into the Baltimore County school system's headquarters with high hopes. The superintendent was going to hear concerns about crowding at her son's school. The boy might finally get the elementary education she had expected.
She left disillusioned.
As Tucker recalled it, the hourlong meeting between parents and school officials began with Superintendent Joe A. Hairston telling parents to stop speaking out to the news media about the school's problems. Then he announced, "You will not walk away from this meeting with anything."
They didn't. School officials listened to their concerns. But in the end, Tucker, the PTA president at New Town Elementary School in Owings Mills, had to settle for the plan that school officials had proposed two weeks before the meeting with the superintendent - even though the parents were not satisfied with it.
"I'm just very discouraged right now by the Baltimore County school system. I entered this thinking we all wanted the same thing, and it seems like they play politics with the educational lives of our kids," Tucker said. "And it's not fair."
Other parents, activists and politicians agree, saying that the school system often hides its debates, airbrushes its faults and then asks the public for unconditional support of its decisions.
They have complained about a secretive school board, arrogant school officials and an insular culture. In other words, a school system that's imperious.
"The general perception is that they should be more open, that they should be more candid with the public and that they overextend their authority," said County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire. "They throw their weight around: Father knows best."
School officials dismissed the criticism as sour grapes from people who didn't get all they wanted. They said they have gone out of their way to be responsive, while making informed decisions that are in the best interest of the entire system.
Donald L. Arnold, the school board president, said staff should be trusted to exercise their expertise.
"In some cases as educators, they have background information just by sheer fact of their education and expertise that other people don't have," he said. "It's information from years of knowledge and working in education."
Money, time, discussion
Hairston didn't dispute Tucker's account of the May 8 meeting on the plan to relieve crowding at New Town Elementary. The meeting, parents complained, still left the school hundreds of pupils over its capacity. Another parent corroborated the account.
But Hairston said he couldn't offer the frustrated parents an immediate answer because the solutions require money, and they take time and discussion to complete. He said he discourages public protest because "I'm not a combative person. I like to sit down and talk."
Hairston, who commissioned a study of the school system's communications problems that was released last year, acknowledged that the system is trying to improve its responsiveness to the public.
Yet he added, "This has probably been the most inclusive administration they've seen. Everything we've done has been based on getting information first, and then analyzing it and seeing what we can do that is feasible."
County Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz said school officials have answered his questions far more quickly and frequently since he complained last year.
But while admitting that it's hard for any large organization to react as responsively as its many constituents would like, critics argued that the school system clings to a culture exemplified by Greenwood, its grand headquarters in a former mansion sitting atop a Towson hill.
Too often, the critics argued, school officials believe that they rule from on high. "It's the old, `We're-the-professionals routine,'" said Rodger Janssen, the PTA Council's vice president for leadership. "So you've got professionals - that doesn't mean you've got all the right answers."
Said County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder: "I don't know who they think they answer to other than themselves, but they do have to answer to the public, and they have to do it sooner rather than later because the public is getting more and more disgruntled."
Michael T. Franklin, president of the PTA Council, said he sometimes feels that school officials seek his input simply to get his support. He said officials hand-picked certain PTA members for a committee developing a master plan for the school system's future who they knew would support the proposal.
"It's like they like to have the PTA Council tag on things, but they want the tag from who they want," Franklin said.
Hairston said that that wasn't true and that people with a variety of viewpoints were selected to serve on such committees.
Complaints about the school system go beyond that.