Jacqueline C. Haas, head of Harford schools for a decade, dies at 59

January 01, 2009|By David Kohn and Nick Madigan | David Kohn and Nick Madigan,david.kohn@baltsun.com and nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Harford County School Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas, a former special education teacher who rose to the top of the school system and led it for a decade, died Tuesday night after suffering an asthma attack at her Aberdeen home. She was 59. Her death prompted an emergency meeting yesterday of the county school board.

"You will not find anybody in our educational system that cared more about children than her," said Harford school board President Patrick Hess. "She based every decision on that."

Her husband, James Haas, said she was stricken by a "severe asthma attack" about 6:30 p.m. She was taken by ambulance to Harford Memorial Hospital and died there later that night. Her husband said she had suffered from a progressive lung ailment, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, for years. The disease causes a chronic narrowing of the air passages in the lungs, but she had not seemed to be having any severe problems lately, her husband said.

School board members expressed "deep sadness" at Dr. Haas' death. Harford's system does not have a clear line of succession, and board members, meeting yesterday afternoon, identified two candidates to replace Dr. Haas. Mr. Hess said the board will interview them over the next few days. He hopes an interim superintendent will be chosen by Monday. That appointment would last until July, when a new superintendent's term begins.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said Dr. Haas is the first sitting superintendent in Maryland to die in at least two decades.

"I'm just so saddened by this. I just can't even come to grips with it," said Dr. Grasmick, who had known Dr. Haas for many years. She and Talbot County Superintendent Karen Salmon had spent the morning calling all the superintendents in the state to deliver the news.

Mr. Haas said his wife never planned to become superintendent. But she kept getting promotions, liking her jobs and doing well. "She could talk to literally anyone, and make friends right away," he said.

Each year on the first day of classes, the superintendent rode school buses with the students, chatting with grade-schoolers. As an elementary school principal, she and the other administrative staff would occasionally take over for the cooks and servers in the cafeteria.

Dr. Haas had worked for the Harford school system since 1977, beginning as a special education teacher. In 1990, she became assistant principal at Prospect Mill Elementary. After two years, she moved on to become principal at Edgewood Elementary School, and was promoted to assistant superintendent for education services in 1997.

The next year, she was named interim superintendent and became the first woman to head Harford County's almost-40,000-student school system. Within months she was chosen to serve through the 1998-1999 school year. In July 1999, she was appointed to her first full four-year term and was subsequently elected to two more four-year terms.

Dr. Haas was named Maryland Superintendent of the Year for the 2008 school year by the Public Schools Superintendents Association of Maryland.

Many staff members returned early from vacation after hearing of her death. Some, their eyes swollen with tears, filled rows of seats at a news conference held yesterday at the county school headquarters in Bel Air.

Colleagues say her life revolved around children and education. "Kids were her whole life," said her husband. "Whatever was best for kids, she pushed for that."

She met Mr. Haas in 1979, while both were teachers at John Archer School, a public special education school in Bel Air. In 1983, they adopted a special-needs child, and in 1995, they adopted another. Both sons, Rob and Steven, graduated from Harford public schools and live in Aberdeen. James Haas has since retired from teaching.

Jim Jewell, the school system's budget director, said Dr. Haas always tried to look out for special-needs students. This fall, when Dr. Haas and her staff were trying to find ways to cut the school budget, "about the only area that wasn't cut was special-needs kids," he said.

Dr. Haas took over in Harford during a turbulent time after the ouster of Jeffery N. Grotsky, who later served as a top administrator in Baltimore schools. "She provided huge credibility and stability to the system," Dr. Grasmick said.

Dr. Grasmick credited Dr. Haas with starting the state's first formalized Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) school at Aberdeen High and building partnerships with several businesses and the military base there.

"She's taken Harford County, with rapid growth there, to a lot of achievement, particularly among some of the schools that were struggling," Dr. Grasmick said.

Among Dr. Haas' accomplishments was her push six or seven years ago to start professional learning communities - groups of teachers who work together to identify the most effective teaching strategies. Such groups are used widely in Harford's schools.

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