Schools chief is finalist for Florida job

Smith among four vying for superintendent's post in Miami-Dade system

Anne Arundel

April 21, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith - a nationally known educator brought in two years ago to shake up the average-performing school district - said yesterday that he is one of four finalists to become the next schools chief in Miami-Dade County, Fla.

The Miami-Dade school board's search committee is scheduled to interview Smith on Friday, and a decision could be made as early as next week, according to school officials there.

Yesterday, Smith confirmed that the nation's fourth-largest school district invited him to apply for the job last month. The Miami-Dade school system has a $4.3 billion budget and 361,000 students - five times as many as Anne Arundel.

Although the school board recently denied Smith's requests for funds to expand several of his prized academic initiatives, he insisted he is not unhappy in his current post.

"It's not an issue of any dissatisfaction with Anne Arundel," the 54-year-old Smith said. "It's just a unique opportunity."

Smith, whose contract with Anne Arundel runs through June 2006, has the option of resigning at any time as long as he gives the school board three months' notice.

School board members and community leaders reacted with surprise and dismay at the news, which comes less than halfway into Smith's four-year contract.

"It'll be a major loss," said the board's vice president, Anthony Spencer, one of the board members who recruited Smith from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district in 2002.

Veteran board member Michael McNelly said he was surprised but not worried about the school system's future. "It hasn't happened yet," he said. "He hasn't left us. He's on a short list."

The three other finalists for the Miami-Dade superintendency are Rudy Crew, a former chancellor of the New York City schools; Nashville, Tenn., schools chief Pedro E. Garcia; and John Murphy, a former superintendent in Prince George's County and Smith's predecessor in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Whoever is hired by Miami-Dade will face a huge, diverse school district mired in fiscal and academic challenges. Mismanagement of construction projects led the state to create an oversight panel several years ago. The district's performance on Florida standardized tests lags behind the state average.

More than half of the residents of Miami-Dade are foreign-born and nearly one in four students there is not proficient in English, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Miami-Dade school officials say they are looking for a superintendent who has experience leading a large urban school system with a "highly diverse" student population.

The current superintendent, Merrett R. Stierheim, is voluntarily leaving the post when his contract ends in June. A longtime Miami-Dade County manager, Stierheim earned $210,000 a year as superintendent.

In the past year and a half, rumors have periodically surfaced that Smith was considering jobs in other school districts, including Howard County and Fairfax County, Va. Critics of his academic initiatives - including uniform school schedules and curricula - have voiced suspicions that Smith is a short-timer determined to make drastic changes and then leave town.

Smith has disputed that notion. He said he did not seriously consider applying elsewhere until recently when he was solicited by Miami-Dade and a second urban school district he would not identify.

He said he could not pass up the opportunity to apply for the Miami-Dade job, despite being content in Anne Arundel. "I'm thrilled with the kind of work students are doing here and that our employees are putting forth," he said. "I'm very happy and pleased to be associated with that."

A former Florida resident, Smith said he was "intrigued" by the possibility of leading Miami-Dade schools. "It's a district I've had a lot of respect for ... since early in my career."

Smith launched his career as a teacher in Orlando, Fla., in 1972. He later worked his way up in Florida's Orange County school system to high school principal and was an assistant superintendent in Volusia County. He earned a doctorate in education from the University of Florida in the early 1980s.

Anne Arundel hired Smith in June 2002, in part for his potential to narrow a significant achievement gap between blacks and whites in the 76,000-student school system.

Impressed by Smith's achievements in his six years as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, the Anne Arundel school board offered him a $197,000 annual salary, one of the highest for a superintendent in Maryland.

His initiatives have included buying millions of dollars' worth of uniform textbooks, establishing standard school schedules and curricula and increasing the number of students enrolled in college-level courses.

School officials say state test results to be released in the summer will show whether those reforms, rolled out last fall, have been effective.

McNelly, a former school board president, said he would prefer that Smith see the initiatives through and finish his term. "I think together we've established a very strong foundation," he said. "I would hope he would stay to continue that."

Sam Georgiou, a parent who heads the countywide Citizens Advisory Committee, said he hopes recent difficulties caused by county and state revenue shortfalls are not the reason Smith is considering leaving.

"I'd be disappointed if he left," Georgiou said.

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