School's out for system's devoted spokeswoman

Beckett-Donohue's aid, loyalty to chiefs lauded

County school system's first spokeswoman retiring after 18 years

Anne Arundel

January 30, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

When Jane Beckett-Donohue was a young mother in 1979, she volunteered so often at her children's Crofton school that its principal offered her a job earning $5,900 a year.

Years later, when the Anne Arundel County school system decided it needed a public information officer, it, too, turned to Beckett-Donohue.

Today, the one-time secretary retires as one of the county's highest-ranking school officials - a trusted adviser to superintendents and a tireless steward of the district's public image.

As the school system's chief spokeswoman for the past 18 years, a position that pays her $105,000 a year, Beckett-Donohue has played a key role in shaping the reputation of Anne Arundel's schools.

She has given advice to parents trying to navigate the school system's bureaucracy and counseled six superintendents on how to control controversies and disseminate good news.

"She always has a good moral and ethical compass," says Superintendent Eric J. Smith, who has relied on Beckett-Donohue for advice on how to make his initiatives palatable to the community.

Beckett-Donohue, 57, became the school system's first official spokesperson in 1986, when the district was emerging from its sleepy, rural origins and growing larger and more cosmopolitan.

Although she did not have formal training in public relations, her energy and communication skills caught the attention of her superiors.

Then-Superintendent Robert C. Rice plucked her out of an obscure position in the curriculum department and put her in charge of an annual report to the community. Not long thereafter, he thrust her in front of television news cameras.

It was an unexpected position for Beckett-Donohue to find herself in. The New Orleans native, who moved to Maryland as a child, said she originally had more modest goals.

After earning a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Maryland, she settled down to raise three children. At the time, that was enough.

"I wanted to be a mother. That was my greatest aspiration," says Beckett-Donohue.

But an enjoyment of being around children and an interest in her own children's education led her out of the home and into their school as a volunteer.

A constant presence at the school, it seemed natural to her and everyone else that she would take the secretarial job. A few years later, after her children had moved on to middle school, she applied to be a secretary at the district's Annapolis headquarters.

Beckett-Donohue still remembers how nervous she was the first time she stood before a television news crew, with instructions from Rice to tell the public that employees had stayed in snowbound schools until 11 p.m. the night before to make sure students got home.

These days, however, there is little that fazes her. She's an expert at rattling off official statements to reporters when they call about a disturbance at a school or the impact of inclement weather on school operations.

She also fields calls from angry parents, helping them when she can or referring them to the appropriate administrator.

Parents say she's been a valuable link to the administration.

"I have to say she's made it possible for me to be heard and to have a conversation, even if I don't always get the answer that I want," says Severna Park parent Terra Snider.

Beckett-Donohue saw the school system through some of it rockiest periods: a major sex scandal in 1993 involving a teacher and several students that drew national media attention; a string of bomb threats at county schools in the late 1990s; and community resistance to Smith's decision last year to change class schedules at secondary schools.

Controversy has taught Beckett-Donohue to be cautious. She's been known to tell reporters that she will never tip them off to bad news involving the 76,000-student school system.

"My job is to make him look good, to help people understand what he's trying to do," she says of Smith.

Colleagues say she's stayed in the position for so long because of her loyalty to all of the superintendents she's worked for and her ability to adjust to each person's style.

"It's very important that the spokesperson is in tune with the leader of the organization," says former Superintendent Carol S. Parham, who still considers her former spokeswoman a good friend. "I think Jane does that very well."

Beckett-Donohue's dedication to Smith, her latest boss, knows few bounds.

When parents and teachers accused Smith during his first year of promoting certain programs because he had ties to national educational companies that produced them, Beckett-Donohue was incensed.

The criticism reached a fever pitch just as she and her husband were to leave for a trip to Ireland. But Beckett-Donohue worked through the night on the eve of her departure, sketching out notes for a response from Smith to be published in the local paper.

"It just angered me because I could see all the good we were getting from his national presence," she says of Smith, a former Charlotte, N.C., schools chief who is in his second year with the Anne Arundel district.

The next morning, Smith emerged from his office after reading her suggestions and flashed her a thumbs-up sign.

"She earned my respect from day one," says Smith, adding that it will be difficult to replace her.

Beckett-Donohue, who was married for several years to Ron Beckett, an associate superintendent who died of cancer in 2000, says she is retiring to spend more time with her family.

High on her list are Bart Donohue, her husband of 18 months, three grown children by previous marriages and an infant grandson, Bryce.

But she says she plans to return to help on the occasional project, because she's excited about the direction that Smith is taking the school system.

"It's the one thing that makes me not want to leave, him being here," she says.

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