Leaders criticize rehire plan use

Balto. County executive, council president fault school system oversight

December 09, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

In rarely heard public criticism, two top Baltimore County officials denounced county school system oversight of a state program that is designed to bring retired educators back into the classroom to help the neediest schools in key subject areas.

County Council President Kevin Kamenetz, in a strongly worded critique, said reports on the county schools' misuse of the program are evidence of a larger management problem. And he called for stronger, more independent oversight of school system operations.

"The problem is the school board doesn't have any independent auditor -- they rely on information that is spoon-fed by the superintendent. That is an emasculation," he said in an interview.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. called on the school system to bolster efforts to ensure that poorly performing schools benefit most from the program.

"I am particularly concerned about reports that some rehired teachers are not engaged in full-time instruction of students as was clearly intended by the General Assembly," he said in a letter to the General Assembly's Joint Pension Committee.

The remarks, by Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, and Smith came on the day the committee was scheduled to recommend reforms in the rehiring law. However, committee members agreed to delay action yesterday.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston has promised to correct any abuses. And he said yesterday, for the first time, that he has asked the two top officials in the system's human resources department to review each rehiring to find out who approved it and whether it was legal.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers said plans remain on track to add restrictions to the law that would require teachers who are rehired to work in underperforming schools and to teach key subjects. Committee members also have said they want to increase state oversight of the rehiring process.

They put their recommendations on hold yesterday after House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Del. Norman H. Conway, the House Appropriations Committee chairman, weighed in.

Conway said he supported refining the law, "but to me, it basically is clear, and I think it's the superintendent's responsibility to interpret it and make sure the intent is followed." He added that systems should be held accountable if they don't follow the intent of the law.

An investigation by The Sun found that most of Baltimore County's 149 rehired teachers are working in the county's top schools, and most are teaching subjects such as art, gym and music that are not deemed critical by the state. Many of these teachers, who earn a salary and collect their pension, earn $100,000 or more a year.

"Unfortunately, it appears that new State programs to attract retired teachers and principals to these challenging schools have not worked fully as intended," Smith wrote to the committee.

Smith backed lawmakers' plans to require rehired educators to work in schools that need help. He said he would urge the school board to give bonuses and otherwise bolster efforts to route experienced teachers and principals into poorly performing schools.

The teachers union has opposed proposals for pay bonuses, saying that without other reforms, such incentives would be inadequate.

Hairston said he interpreted Smith's remarks as "confirmation of support," not criticism. Hairston said he has long agreed with the county executive about the importance of placing top-notch teachers in at-risk schools.

"But we've met opposition, so we've had to work through that," Hairston said. "With the support of the county executive, we'll find ways to make sure we do what we need to do on behalf of children."

Hairston has said he plans to ask the school board for permission to conduct an audit of the district's rehiring program, which costs $7.3 million a year in teacher salaries. He wants the audit to be conducted by a new director of personnel, a position which has not yet been filled.

Kamenetz said the reports of abuse suggest a larger problem among top school administrators. "This is one instance of a bigger management problem that I think exists in the system," he said.

He also called on Maryland lawmakers to give county government a role in appointing the school board, whose members are appointed by the governor.

Responding to Kamenetz's call for an independent auditor, school board President James R. Sasiadek said the district regularly hires outside consultants to study major policy issues and make recommendations.

He added: "We do have an auditor, who reports to the school board, who is busy being tied up by the county because they want to double-check everything."

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