Teacher rehiring practices face audit

Balto. Co. to scrutinize placement of retirees

December 04, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Facing criticism from state officials, Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said yesterday that he wants an audit of the school system's human resources department, in particular its program for rehiring retired teachers.

"We have to follow through and investigate and make sure what we're doing is legitimate," said Hairston, who said he will ask the school board to authorize the audit. "Those areas that need correction, we will take appropriate steps."

While pledging to clean up their own house, school officials also spent the day making clear that any problems were not entirely their fault. They pointed to the vaguely worded law permitting teachers to be rehired and at a former personnel official, John E. Smeallie, who oversaw the program.

The school system's practices have come under fire since The Sun reported that it was misusing and, in some cases, abusing a state law designed to put retired teachers of math, science and other key subjects back in poor-performing schools. Teachers who return to the classroom can collect a salary plus their pension.

Most of Baltimore County's 149 rehired teachers, who make as much as $100,000, don't work in schools identified as poorly performing, and most teach subjects such as art, gym and music that aren't deemed critical by the state.

On Monday, state lawmakers looking at renewing the law attacked the school system's program, questioning whether it was being used to bolster the salaries of administrators and to staff high-performing schools.

"In no way is that an indictment of Baltimore County" schools, Hairston said of the criticism. He called any problems with rehiring practices "isolated" and vowed to address them, beginning with the audit.

"What I want the public to know is we operate - or at least, I operate - with a degree of integrity," he said.

Hairston said he agreed with lawmakers who want to renew the law but tighten the language to make sure it's used as intended: "They put a law in place, and they now see they have to go back to the drawing board."

Hairston said an audit, which he expected would be conducted by a new director of personnel that the school system wants to hire, would review general practices as well as individual cases.

Hairston said that would include a look at the case of the scheduler at Randallstown High, Ted F. Fischer, who is listed by the school system as a math teacher. Fischer, who school officials say occasionally tutors, isn't a certified math teacher.

Some school board members expressed support for an audit, as did community leaders troubled by the reports of abuse.

"An audit is an excellent idea to make sure the practice benefits kids," said Vicki Schultz-Unger, who oversees the councils of parents that advise the school board. "Let's get these teachers where they need to be - in classrooms, helping children."

School board President James R. Sasiadek said he welcomed a review.

Still, he took issue with some criticisms of the district's program. He said students at good schools should have equal access to top-notch teachers, and he said art, gym and music were important subjects that require quality instruction.

Sasiadek said the school system took a major step toward fixing any problems with August's transfer of Smeallie, who Sasiadek said oversaw the district's rehire program as director of personnel.

"That's why Smeallie has been gone - because we realized what's been going on," Sasiadek said.

He said The Sun's findings helped alert school officials, who wanted to upgrade the district's human resources department.

Smeallie, who is now assistant state superintendent for certification and accreditation, said he always followed regulations. He expressed surprise at the school board president's claim.

"I'm not responsible for problems in Baltimore County," he said. "Every job I've ever done has resulted in outstanding performance evaluations. I believe my skills are very strong."

In practice, Baltimore County's rehiring of retired teachers was arranged by principals working with the personnel office, school officials have said.

Anthony G. Marchione, superintendent from 1995 to 2000, said Smeallie was a "very effective" personnel director.

"He was an outstanding administrator and served the school system well. It surprises me that all of this is placed in his lap. That's not the way I would perceive it," Marchione said.

Marchione now holds the county government's second-highest position, administrative officer. His secretary is the wife of Fischer, the Randallstown High scheduler.

Deputy State Superintendent Ronald A. Peiffer said the state Department of Education values Smeallie, who oversees a division charged with licensing teachers throughout Maryland.

On Monday, Smeallie testified on behalf of the state education department at a hearing before the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Pensions about the rehiring of retired teachers.

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