Candidates under review

Interviews over, school board nears superintendent decision


After interviewing the three finalists for Anne Arundel County schools superintendent, school board members will meet this week to discuss their opinions of the three men. But they'll also weigh the input of parents, educators, students, and business and community leaders who also had their shot to grill the candidates.

"We were trying to get as much input as we could and give as much access as possible," said school board Vice President Tricia Johnson.

Robert E. Schiller, Dana Bedden and Kevin Maxwell each spent a demanding 12- to 14-hour day interviewing, which included a 45-minute interview with parents that was broadcast live on television, and a 1 1/2 -hour tour of the 74,000-student school system with interim Superintendent Nancy M. Mann. Despite the grueling day, all three candidates remained enthusiastic.

"It's a great job opportunity," Bedden said a day after his interview, adding that he enjoyed talking with so many people during his day in the county. Bedden was the second to interview, on Wednesday; Schiller arrived Tuesday and Maxwell was interviewed Thursday.

The school board has scheduled a closed session for tomorrow night. The consultant conducting the search said a final decision could be made as early as mid-May. The new superintendent will start by July 1.

Johnson said the board has been receiving e-mails from those who watched the interviews on TV. Interviews will be rebroadcast at 6 o'clock tonight and tomorrow night on Channel 96.

"The feedback I've gotten is people were pleased that all three candidates were very highly qualified," Johnson said, adding that she too was "favorably impressed" by all three.

Schiller, 59, is a consultant and former state schools superintendent of Illinois; Bedden, 39, is superintendent of William Penn District in Pennsylvania; and Maxwell, 54, is a community superintendent for the Montgomery County public schools.

The highly public process was unusual for Anne Arundel. When Eric J. Smith, then superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system, was chosen in 2002, his name wasn't announced until the board had whittled down the finalists to Smith, their top pick.

After Smith resigned in November amid strained relations with the school board, its members - only one of whom participated in the hiring of Smith - said they wanted to involve the public more, and they hired the Maryland Association of Boards of Education for the job.

Bea Gordon, who's leading the search for the association, said she's conducted 10 searches in the same way.

"This is the process that we use," Gordon said. "The only difference here is the televised part."

But Anne Arundel County is bucking the trend - a lot of school systems are moving toward more closed searches.

The problem, said Paul D. Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, is that there is a shortage of superintendent candidates.

"Obviously, you want people who aren't looking for work, who are successful where they are," Houston said. "If it's too public that the people are being courted, it could be very politically awkward for them, particularly if they don't get the job."

But Houston said a search like the one in Anne Arundel County can be beneficial for both the community and the candidates. The community gets a chance to see who the board is considering, and the candidates get to meet the people they could end up working with, he said.

"It's a two-way process. Boards are looking to hire someone and the candidates are looking at, `Is this a place I want to work? Are these people I want to work for?'" Houston said. "It's fairly good for the candidates to sample the community and see what they're getting into."

The candidates agreed.

Bedden said the long day went fast because he enjoyed talking with the different groups, and that he especially learned a lot from talking with students.

Maxwell said the visit was an opportunity for him to gain some insight into the county's issues and would give him a "jump-start" on dealing with those issues if hired.

All three candidates agreed that one of the biggest challenges facing the county schools, aside from complying with a mediated civil rights agreement and narrowing the achievement gap between racial groups, is fostering good relationships.

"You can't be successful without relationships," Maxwell said.

Schiller, who was interim chief executive of Baltimore City schools from 1997 to 1998 during a state takeover, has a reputation for being a change agent - someone brought in to make quick and sweeping changes in a school system.

In an interview with reporters last week, Schiller said that he would come to Anne Arundel to "sustain the goals and progress" being made, adding that he didn't think that the board was looking for someone to turn it upside-down. He said he'd be ready to "provide a steady hand of leadership."

Houston knows both Schiller and Bedden, but not Maxwell, and said it was a positive sign that the board is considering people with very different reputations and backgrounds.

Schiller "is very experienced," Houston said. "He probably brings a lot of what they didn't like about [Smith]. He pretty much knows what he wants."

Bedden "is younger, fresher, brings less experience," Houston said. "He probably will have a different perspective."

Houston agreed with the candidates that an important trait of whoever is hired should be the ability to bridge the gaps among the divergent interests in the school system.

"I would look for somebody who could bring people together," Houston said. "I'm assuming the board will be listening to the [community] feedback, and that may help them."

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