In a sometimes contentious hearing before Baltimore County's legislative delegation, school Superintendent Joe A. Hairston pledged that he would not make a controversial grading program mandatory.
The pledge came during a joint hearing Thursday in Annapolis during which delegates criticized Hairston for failings in communication with parents, teachers and the public over what they said was a major policy mistake. After the school system announced in December that it would make the grading system mandatory in just weeks, teachers vocally opposed the Articulated Instruction Module as time-consuming and redundant.
Several delegates also questioned the ethics of the school system giving an employee, Barbara Dezmon, the copyright to the software of a program that she had developed while working for the school system and said they would like to see more collaboration between the superintendent and the teachers union in the future.
Hairston acknowledged failings but said he was out of the office after surgery when a superintendent's bulletin went out in December making the progress reporting part of AIM mandatory; a second component provides teachers access to the curriculum.
Hairston, who said he came back to work Jan. 4 and issued a new bulletin Jan. 7, backed away from making the system mandatory and formed a committee to review the program. But the delegates continued to press him for a more complete answer.
Referring to Hairston's assertion that AIM would not be mandatory, Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat, asked him, "Would you have a problem if this legislative body put that into statute?"
Hairston said he hoped that the legislature would respect that his word was good.
Since the issue arose in mid-December, intense criticism has mounted against AIM and the delegates said they had been deluged with letters and e-mails from constituents who oppose the use of the program. More than half the county's teachers signed a petition saying they did not want to use it and hundreds of people attended a public hearing to express opposition.
Del. Jon S. Cardin said he was concerned that an employee would hold a copyright to the program, which means she would be able to profit on the sale of it to other states.
"It would seem to me that Baltimore County should be able to have the copyright and use it," he said.
Hairston said it was an issue that had been handled by attorneys, "so I would refer that to them."
Cardin then asked that Hairston have the attorneys write an opinion or a letter for the delegation addressing the ethics issue.
Del. Joseph Boteler, a Republican, went further saying, "I think that is an ethical problem. ... Is this typical of what we do in the county?"
Hairston said it was no different than when teachers write textbooks. When Boteler disagreed, Hairston responded, "I think you should take that up with the attorneys." Boteler said, "You are pleading the Fifth all over the place."
Several delegates also questioned why the Baltimore County school board had not been more involved in the decision-making.
Brochin said the board should be a check on the actions of the superintendent. "In this whole process I am trying to figure out where you all were," Brochin said.
The president of the board, JoAnn C. Murphy, said that AIM "was not a curriculum [issue] so it was not something we would have voted on" and added that the board sets policy but does not vote on issues such as AIM. Murphy said the board had been unaware of the decision and that members were "as surprised as anyone else" when they learned about it.
Brochin said that she was "playing a wordsmith game."
But board member Edward Parker said that the board's most important job is to hire the superintendent and assess his performance.
"We are embarrassed that this happened. It showed us there are some things we need to correct," Parker said.
The delegation also expressed concerns about the movement of mentors into the central office and the worries parents and students have about potential changes at the magnet high schools in the county.
"I have to say that this whole process has caused a lot of harm. … I hope it never happens again," said Del. Susan Aumann, a Republican.