Arundel superintendent putting in his last day

Achievements of school system chief are acknowledged, along with friction


More than three years after arriving in Anne Arundel County as one of the state's highest-paid educators, schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith steps down today, amid public discord, to take an unpaid job and face an uncertain future.

"The reason I decided to resign is there obviously is a difference of opinion about where the school district is headed," said Smith, 55. "I was hired by one board and it's a very different board today. ... I'm not a superintendent that molds myself to the political whims."

Smith, a nationally known educator, is credited with raising test scores in Anne Arundel, narrowing the achievement gap between white and black students, and boosting participation in advanced placement courses.

But Smith faced a rapid erosion of support last summer, publicly feuding with school board members over a critical audit of the schools' human resources practices. He announced his resignation a day before the county teachers union, upset about workload issues and his management style, was to decide on a no-confidence vote. Even after Smith quit, the union passed the motion of no confidence in him this month.

Smith said he plans to stay in the Annapolis area, commuting to Boston occasionally for a yearlong position with Harvard University's Urban Superintendents Program starting next month. He also plans to consult. He doesn't discount the possibility of one day serving as superintendent somewhere else.

"Anything's possible," he said, shrugging. Then, more pointedly, he added: "The thing that drives me is working to build systems that provide greater opportunity for all children."

Smith arrived in Anne Arundel in the summer of 2002 from Charlotte, N.C., where he also received high marks for raising test scores, including among low-income and minority students.

The board gave Smith a $197,000 annual salary, plus a bonus and benefits valued at $100,000. He was charged with turning around an underperforming, system of 75,000 students - Maryland's fifth-largest.

From the beginning, he shook things up. Within months, Smith and the board set specific goals for student achievement and higher academic expectations, to be reached by 2007. Last September, school leaders and civil rights activists resolved a federal discrimination complaint against the system by agreeing to extend those goals to all students.

Under Smith, the rigorous International Baccalaureate program was introduced at two county high schools; the number and selection of Advanced Placement courses was expanded; and uniform curriculum and textbooks, along with block scheduling, were put in place. He also emphasized the teaching of phonics.

Asked what he considered his top successes, Smith pointed to increased expectations and improved academic achievement. For example, all elementary schools met state targets on standardized tests this year, including a previously "underperforming" school.

"He is someone with lots of vision and academic insight," said Sam Georgiou, a parent who heads the county's citizens advisory council. "And I think he brought forth lots of change that may not have occurred if the board had not opted to seek out someone so aggressive."

But getting there wasn't always smooth. Accused of being dictatorial by some, uncommunicative and unreasonable by others, he admits he ruffled some feathers.

"Radical change, like we've done here, you don't do that without some pretty lively discussion," Smith said. "That's to be expected. That's healthy."

One of Smith's most vocal critics has been Sheila Finlayson, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.

"I respect what he's done as far as programs are concerned, and new textbooks," she said. But Finlayson said that teacher turnover is considerably higher than it was three years ago, in part because of changes instituted by Smith.

She said the union still held its no-confidence vote because Smith was "still causing harm to teachers."

Anne Levin Garrison, a parent of two South River High School students, echoed those concerns.

"His ongoing and rapid changes have caused good teachers to leave in droves," she said. "That, coupled with the lack of communication and lack of relationship with them, left teachers very unhappy."

Smith doesn't deny he has asked teachers to do more. But everyone, he said, is being expected to work harder, including students, parents and school administrators.

Criticism from the teachers union is not what prompted Smith to leave, he has said.

A rift between Smith and some school board members opened this summer over an internal audit of human resources practices that described missing background checks on school system employees. The report also highlighted inconsistent compensation policies. Board members - only one of whom remained from the board that hired Smith - fumed that he didn't adequately communicate with them.

By early September, Smith had announced his plan to resign, citing "recent public disputes" that had distracted from work.

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