Changes on board led Smith to resign

Arundel schools chief says deteriorating ties with members basis for his exit

September 11, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, Anne Arundel County school board members lured Eric J. Smith to the county's top schools post, hoping he could take the 75,000- student district from good to great.

But last week, Smith abruptly announced plans to step down Nov. 23. Despite headway on the ambitious results he promised, he said public disputes with the current school board during the summer became too disruptive.

"It's kind of like there was a switch that was flipped, and it led to, again, just a lot of distractions," Smith, 55, said last week. "I was upset - it was taking me off my game, from what I was brought here for."

Smith's decision to take an unpaid position with Harvard University - and possibly consult - surprised many, even though he began the school year facing questions about whether the board would renew his contract next year.

"He's quitting - we did not ask him to go," said Vice President Tricia Johnson of Davidsonville.

Some say his exit illustrates the often-tenuous position of urban and suburban school superintendents, particularly as school boards change.

Superintendents are on even more shaky ground in Maryland because boards are restricted from extending their contracts until March of the year the contract expires.

Superintendents are "hired by one school board to fit their values and needs," said Bruce S. Cooper, who researches education leadership at Fordham University. After a few years, however, "now the board is made of different people. Then they want their own superintendent."

Cooper said it's not unusual for superintendents to leave at certain junctures - after three to four years, and again after eight to nine years.

The soft-spoken Smith arrived in Anne Arundel in summer 2002 from Charlotte, N.C., where he received national recognition for his work in closing the achievement gap between black and white students.

The school board at the time recruited him with a salary and benefits package of about $300,000 a year.

Smith has widely been credited with helping to raise achievement among Anne Arundel County students. They are faring better on statewide tests, and more are taking Advanced Placement courses.

This month, Smith helped celebrate the removal of one elementary school from the state's academically troubled schools list.

Tensions

But his tenure has been marked by political clashes, first with the teachers union, then with county leaders and finally with a school board that had almost completely changed since his hiring.

Smith denied that his decision was connected to the teachers union's plans last week to decide whether to hold a no-confidence vote in the superintendent. Although Smith fared well in a school system survey of employees, a teachers union survey revealed that a majority of respondents didn't believe Smith valued their input.

Instead, Smith pointed to his deteriorating relationship with the board. During the summer, some school board members sharply criticized Smith for not consulting with them about hefty raises given to top deputies and other employees.

The practices were faulted in an internal audit that also raised questions about missing employee records, such as proof of criminal background checks.

Some saw evidence of tension months before the audit, however. Jane Andrew, a former board member who heads Anne Arundel's Coalition for Balanced Excellence in Education, noted that the school board prioritized items in Smith's recommended budget request before forwarding it to county officials.

In the end, some of Smith's pet projects, such as the expansion of the International Baccalaureate program to middle school, did not get funding.

"It looks to me that this board has some different direction or wants things done differently," Andrew said.

Nevertheless, some school board members said last week that they wanted Smith to finish out his contract.

"I'm disappointed in that he is not sticking it out," said Paul G. Rudolph of Severna Park, the remaining member from the eight-member board that hired Smith.

Rudolph said Smith assumed that the comments of a vocal few represent the entire board's views.

But even Rudolph acknowledged some concerns about Smith's style. The superintendent "will take actions and then come back to the board for an OK on it," Rudolph said.

For example, Smith said the school system would use revenue from a parking garage to supplement a state grant for struggling Annapolis schools.

However, the school board has the final say on how funds are allocated, Rudolph said.

Several board members said no decision had been made about extending Smith's contract.

"This board has not had that conversation yet," Johnson said.

But Smith's prospects would have remained uncertain for several months because of the state law that restricts school board decisions about superintendents.

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