School rehires get new scrutiny

Re-employed principals work with high-achieving Balto. Co. students

Retirees get salaries, pensions

Placement is based on need, superintendent says

December 21, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Even as state officials criticize the Baltimore County schools' policies in hiring retired teachers, Superintendent Joe A. Hairston is coming under attack for his handling of a similar program for principals.

Although Hairston says his priority is to place rehired principals in the neediest schools, critics in the community and the school system accuse him of using the program to reward favorites. That policy, they say, hurts the students and schools that need the most help. Hairston rehired 10 principals this school year and has said he placed them in needy schools after hearing complaints from community members about abuses in the program and in a similar one for teachers. Both programs allow returning educators to collect a salary and pension.

However, a review of the principal rehiring program shows that it suffers from some of the same problems as the one governing retired teachers.

Three of the principals work in schools that the district has deemed high priority. Keith Harmeyer, who led Loch Raven High School for nine years, was rehired and kept at the school, which Newsweek magazine ranked in June as one of the finest in the country. He is collecting a $94,573 salary on top of a monthly pension based on 37 years of service.

Also, of the four principals that Hairston reassigned this school year, none went to a priority school. Marsha D. Baumeister was shifted from high-achieving Dumbarton Middle to Sudbrook Magnet Middle, another top county school. Baumeister collects a $91,739 salary in addition to her monthly pension.

The principals union estimates that pensions range from $25,000 to $50,000 a year.

The outcry about the principals' rehiring comes two weeks after state officials and legislators questioned whether the school system abused the law that allows retired teachers to return to the classroom. Officials called for restrictions to prevent abuses.

Maryland law allows superintendents to place rehired principals anywhere. And unlike the law governing the rehiring of teachers, it wasn't conceived to aid the neediest schools.

Still, critics are unhappy with the way the program is run.

"It's criminal," said Ella White Campbell, a Randallstown community activist. "If these people aren't going to work in those schools where they're needed, they shouldn't be rehired."

But Hairston says he placed the principals according to where they were needed, not to play favorites. He said he assigned the principals to schools that were at risk of losing academic ground.

"I can't afford to have any of our top-flight schools slide at the same time we're trying to improve our low-performing schools," he said.

That's especially important now, Hairston said, because federal law threatens to punish schools that don't show "adequate yearly progress" in students' academic performance.

Hairston said he made other moves to help the lowest-performing schools. For example, he assigned a well-regarded principal who isn't retired, Thomas G. Evans, to Randallstown High.

"I have to make sure all schools perform," he said. "I have to make sure these top-notch schools continue to perform at the top, and I have to improve low-performing schools -- and you can't do it without good leadership."

Choosing schools

Retired principals can be rehired under a 3-year-old law that is similar to a measure that allows public school systems to rehire retired teachers. The laws, which are expected to be renewed when they expire June 30, allow teachers and principals to collect regular salaries on top of their monthly pensions. Some of Baltimore County's rehired principals are taking home about $140,000.

The teacher rehiring law was enacted so veterans could teach critical subjects, such as math and science, in the neediest schools.

But an investigation by The Sun found that most of the county's rehired teachers were teaching noncritical subjects -- such as art, gym and music -- and working in successful schools.

In what is apparently a violation of the law, the person who draws up student schedules at Randallstown High was listed as a math teacher even though he wasn't certified in math and didn't have any classroom responsibilities.

Sponsors of the principal rehiring law said it was designed to help school systems facing a shortage of quality principals, not to aid poorly performing schools in particular.

"I didn't want to get into micromanaging," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who was a sponsor. "A good school board and a good superintendent -- if they've got a problem school, they're going to put a good principal there."

Under the law, the rehired principals can work at any school, so long as they demonstrate "better than satisfactory" performance before retirement.

Veteran county principals said Hairston encouraged them to take advantage of the program during a meeting with all principals early last year. They said Hairston was worried that too many retirement-age principals would depart before enough replacements were ready.

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