Superintendent's first year

Building bridges to better schools

August 26, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

The people who work closely with Anne Arundel County Schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell have gotten used to one thing: book reports. First it was Good to Great, by Jim Collins. His deputies had to be able to discuss how its principles for a successful business could be applied to the smooth running of a school system.

Nearly every month since his first day as school chief last July, Maxwell has had a new book for his crew. These days, it's Execution: The Art of Getting Things Done, co-authored by a former General Electric executive who writes that it's not what you plan to do that makes a place successful, but how you carry out the reform that makes the difference.

From the looks of that reading assignment, execution appears to be Maxwell's focus as his second school year as Anne Arundel superintendent begins tomorrow.

The school chief spent his first year methodically studying the system and gathering ideas. He visited all 118 schools to see what they had - and what they lacked. He held two summits on the future of high schools and middle schools to gather the thoughts of parents, teachers, veteran educators and community leaders. He created a group of regional superintendents with offices at some schools to keep a closer eye on academic progress and make the bureaucracy more accessible and parent-friendly. And he kept the system's academic performance steady, even as state benchmarks for reading and math performance rose through federal standards under No Child Left Behind.

His next step is finding innovative ways to implement the system's daily work. He has task forces trying to answer a variety of questions, including: How can the system better teach - and reach - minority and low-income students? How can it prepare students for a social and professional landscape that's quickly evolving through globalization? And how can high schools and middle schools be restructured to meet the disparate needs of an increasingly diverse student population?

"I don't know that all the schools have to be so in lock-step with each other and have the same structure or schedule," he said. "Students have different needs, so there's a lot of discussion about how schools can change to accommodate that."

The superintendent's inquisitive and collaborative side has earned him supporters like Anita Owens, president of the county council of PTAs.

"You know sometimes, when you meet a superintendent, you're worried that he's up there and you're down here, but he's one of those down-to-earth people who makes you feel very comfortable," Owens said.

But Maxwell's first year wasn't always comfortable.

His first budget proposal, ultimately rejected by the County Council, asked for a $133 million - or 17 percent - increase from last year, setting off a wave of criticism from fiscally conservative county officials who accused Maxwell of bloating a system "already overrun with bureaucracy," as one put it.

County Executive John R. Leopold and Maxwell lobbed criticism at each other through columns in local newspapers. Maxwell charged that Leopold didn't understand the needs of a school system and was keeping money that "rightfully belonged" to the school system, while Leopold fired back that that the money belongs to taxpayers and that Maxwell was insensitive to the county's cash constraints.

"I think we're still getting to know each other, and we have encouraged the County Council and the county executive to learn more about our budget process," Maxwell said. "Communication is always better than nothing at all. I came in with the understanding that there would be regular meetings with the county executive. I had the dates on my calendar, but he canceled those. There's nothing I can do about that."

Leopold said relations are improving, noting they met last week and would again at Annapolis High tomorrow.

"I think there has to be a meeting of the minds about the academic priorities of a school system trying to achieve excellence and find ways to accomplish those priorities within the fiscal realities we face," Leopold said. He said the tension in the spring "was structural, not personal."

"We have different roles. He has to advocate for the school system. I have to be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars and consider the needs of the county as a whole," said Leopold. "I am a longtime advocate of public education."

Then, in June, Maxwell and his top deputies were accused of being unfriendly toward charter schools when KIPP Harbor Academy in Edgewater shut down because it had not found a new home for its growing enrollment. Maxwell dismissed complaints that he should have done more to bail out the charter school, saying it was the school's responsibility to find a building.

Those challenges aside, Maxwell said he's proudest of his work to improve relationships in the system, namely the one he has with his employers, the school board.

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