Board backs rehiring of ex-teachers

Members praise, defend Balto. Co. schools practice

official says it's legal

December 17, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Stung by reports of abuse, defiant Baltimore County school officials last night defended the school system's use of a state law that allows them to rehire retired teachers, insisting they've done nothing wrong.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's legal counsel, Margaret-Ann F. Howie, told school board members that the system has followed the letter of the law in every rehiring.

"Everything that has been relayed to the department of human resources as of this moment is that the school system is compliant with the statute," Howie said.

The meeting marked the first time the board has taken a public stance on the school system's use of the law. It came two weeks after a legislative hearing in Annapolis at which lawmakers and other state officials - including state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick - criticized the district's rehiring practices and questioned whether the system had subverted the law by applying it to administrators and using it to staff high-performing schools.

Hairston has called for an audit of the program.

But last night, board members praised the school system's program, and offered justifications for aspects that have been attacked.

"Hopefully, we've clarified this for legislators questioning our practices, as well as the media questioning our practices," said Warren C. Hayman, a board member.

Although the superintendent's lawyer defended every rehiring, Randall D. Grimsley, executive director of human resources, said for the first time that the legality of one rehiring is under review.

"There is one requiring some clarification," he said, "but to the best of my knowledge, we have placed people where the principals believe they need an assignment filled by a quality retire rehiree."

Grimsley and other school officials emphasized that the rehiring program is one small part of an initiative to recruit capable teachers. They said they were stepping up teacher recruitment efforts.

Critical intent

At issue was the school system's use of a 4-year-old law intended to put veteran teachers of critical subjects, such as science and math, into needy schools.

A recent investigation by The Sun found that most of Baltimore County's rehired teachers are working in successful schools, and that most are teaching subjects such as art, music and gym, which aren't deemed critical by the State Department of Education.

One of the rehired teachers, who is listed as a math teacher at Randallstown High, isn't a certified math teacher and mostly schedules students.

In response to The Sun's findings, state lawmakers, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and others have asked that new restrictions be written into the law - which is due to expire June 30 - to prevent abuses by limiting rehired teachers to needy schools and critical subjects.

But Phyllis E. Ettinger, a school board member, said the school system was helping its poorly performing schools by not concentrating too many rehired teachers in them.

If those teachers were to retire at the same time, she said, the school would be left with many slots to fill.

Loch Raven High, a Towson-area school that was recently ranked as one of the nation's finest, has eight rehired teachers, the highest number in the county.

Figures provided by school officials indicated there are 165 rehired teachers working in county schools. That is 14 more than given by records that the school system provided to The Sun in August.

Following the law

Justifying the district's practices, Howie said that the state Board of Education opened the door for the county schools to rehire retired teachers as it sees fit by ruling that all Maryland districts suffer from teacher shortages.

"At that point, local school systems were free to hire in any area as long as they were [hiring] classroom teachers or teacher mentors," she said.

While Maryland lawmakers have said the rehiring law was intended to place veteran teachers of important subjects in needy schools, Howie said no such intent was written into the law, and that was another reason she gave for saying the school system didn't do anything wrong.

"Any lawyer worth his or her salt would advise his client to follow the statute and not what someone thought," Howie said.

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