Observers say `jury's still out' on schools chief's leadership

Smith's 2-year tenure draws mixed reviews

April 25, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Although he is no longer in the running to lead the Miami-Dade, Fla., school system, the very fact that Eric J. Smith was flirting with another school district has triggered a critical assessment of his record in his 22 months as superintendent of Anne Arundel County schools.

Smith says progress has been made toward his goals of boosting student achievement and narrowing the academic gap between whites and minorities. But many teachers and parents say it is too early to judge the impact of the sweeping changes he has made.

"I think the jury's still out," said teachers union President Sheila Finlayson, who is waiting to see "whether all these kids in these [Advanced Placement] classes are passing the AP exams."

The prospect that Smith could go elsewhere set his critics' hearts aflutter.

"I can't stop humming `Ode to Joy,'" said Jane Andrew, a Severna Park parent and former county school board member who said Smith has demoralized teachers by imposing new secondary-school schedules and caused students too much stress by encouraging them to take large loads of college-level classes.

Smith's supporters, however, are hoping that he will stay at least through the end of his four-year contract.

Annapolis Alderwoman Classie Gillis Hoyle said Smith has put a much-needed spotlight on academic disparities between students of different races.

"He has recognized the problem, and he has communicated the problem, and I think that's an accomplishment," said Hoyle, one of many in the African-American community who solidly back Smith. "I would not want to see him leave."

Smith, who was hired by Anne Arundel after earning a national reputation as schools chief in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., faced numerous challenges and controversies in his first year.

There was a decline in teacher morale in reaction to his decisive, sometimes unilateral style, and a near revolt among some staff members when pay raises were sacrificed to balance a strained county budget.

But he enjoyed the unwavering support of a school board that seemed almost in awe of the award-winning school leader it had lured with a $197,000 salary after a nationwide search for a superintendent.

The current school year has presented new difficulties. Smith has had to work harder to please the eight-member board, which has questioned his decisions more frequently and voted against his recommendations.

In February, the board cut more than $7 million from the school system's budget request, including money for alternative education and an expansion of gifted-and-talented programs, over Smith's objections. Smith said he wished the board had given him the chance to reduce his request in his own way.

"To lose a year is a big deal," he said earlier this month. "I would have kept on with the agenda."

But school board President Paul Rudolph said the board is taking more responsibility, even if it is not as pliant as it was last year.

"That was called a honeymoon," Rudolph said of Smith's first year. "Now, we are in deeper financial straits. I don't necessarily say that we are against what the superintendent's recommending. It's just that we are trying to decide whether we can afford it or not."

Smith also struggled this year to resolve an eight-month crisis at Annapolis High School. Deborah Williams, the school's hard-charging principal, inspired so much opposition from some teachers and parents that Smith eventually declared the school unsafe and replaced her.

But despite recent hurdles, Smith said, he is not actively seeking another job. He said he was solicited by Miami-Dade and a second urban district he would not identify, not the other way around.

"Any superintendent would know that controversy and debate around changes ... are just part of the process," he said last week before leaving for Florida for the job interview.

Smith said enrollment data for next fall showed that one of his major initiatives - getting more students, including minorities, enrolled in Advanced Placement classes - has taken hold.

And he had just received a staff report indicating good news on another front.

Although five times more seventh-graders and twice as many eighth-graders are enrolled than last year in algebra - a course previously open only to the highest-achieving students - the vast majority are on track to earn an A or B in the course.

"I do look at the last two years as two good years," Smith said.

But some say they are waiting for higher standardized test scores to prove Smith's case.

"I don't think we can really evaluate him one way or the other," Old Mill High School parent Paul Linn said.

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