Grasmick announces she'll retire in June

As schools chief for two decades, she has ushered in numerous reforms

March 30, 2011|By Liz Bowie, Erica L. Green and Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who used her considerable political acumen to reshape education in the state over the past two decades, announced Wednesday that she will retire from her post this summer.

The unflappable 72-year-old is the longest-serving superintendent in the nation, having survived in her role largely because she was able to get along with governors even when they came into office vowing to force her out, as Martin O'Malley did.

Grasmick will retire June 30 with another year on her contract. The timing was right, she said, because the state's educational system has recently received national accolades and because one of the toughest signature pieces of reform — a teacher evaluation system that factors in student achievement — will be completed in early June.

Robert C. Embry, who presided over the state Board of Education that hired Grasmick in 1991 and is president of the Abell Foundation, called her "tireless, an incredibly hard worker, accessible, open to new ideas, and on the cutting edge of what's going on nationally."

Appointed to usher in a new era of accountability, she has presided over the initiation of statewide testing in grades three through eight, invested in early childhood education and pushed Advanced Placement courses into schools around the state.

The efforts have earned Maryland schools a No. 1 ranking in Education Week for the past three years as well as a No. 1 ranking by the College Board for the state with the highest percentage of graduates who have been successful on AP tests. And last year, Maryland was one of only a dozen states to be awarded a $250 million competitive federal grant, known as Race to the Top.

"We greatly appreciate her unprecedented two decades of service that has produced extraordinary results for the students of Maryland," said James DeGraffenreidt, president of the state school board, which will appoint the next superintendent.

He said the school board will conduct a national search that he expects to be "structured" and "methodical."

At 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Grasmick stood within a circle of hundreds of staff members on the seventh floor of the state Department of Education to give them the news of her retirement. "I have made a very tough decision," she said, with her voice cracking. Around the room, a number of people, from her high-level staff to secretaries and support staff, stood wet-eyed in line to give her a hug. She was handed a dozen long-stem orange roses.

Unable to slow down the hectic pace of her $195,000-a-year job, she said, she decided that it was time to take a vacation with her husband, Louis Grasmick, and then choose what new venture she might want to pursue at a "more leisurely pace."

A woman who doesn't have an idle speed, Grasmick is known for arriving early to work, dressed impeccably, and staying late. She makes constant appearances at schools around the state, sometimes driving herself 600 miles a week while conducting business on a cellphone attached to the dashboard.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who spearheaded the Race to the Top plan, said through a spokeswoman of Grasmick's retirement: "In an era in which state superintendents change as frequently as every year, Nancy Grasmick has been a consistent voice for reform in Maryland for two decades. Under her leadership, Maryland has been at the forefront of reform and will remain so as it implements its Race to the Top plan."

Grasmick has had a contentious relationship with some of the governors she has served, most recently O'Malley. The rocky relationship can be traced back to when Grasmick had attempted a state takeover of several city schools while O'Malley was mayor of Baltimore; when he was elected governor several years ago, he pressured her to resign.

But observers who have watched Grasmick withstand the tests of politics said her ability to gather different interest groups, from teacher unions to legislators to superintendents, around a single cause has been one of the greatest strengths of her tenure.

"Her ability to survive in that job, given the nature of politics in Maryland, is pretty incredible," said Donald Norris, public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "She's worked for a couple of governors who didn't like her at all."

Grasmick has remained nearly "untouchable" due to the unwavering support of her state school boards, Norris said, because no matter how vulnerable she seemed, her results were strong.

Education stakeholders around the state said Grasmick's retirement marks the end of a formative era.

"It's one of the decisions that I've been involved in that I'm most proud of — hiring her," Embry said. "She came up through the public schools in Baltimore and through the public education system, so she certainly knew the groundwork before she arrived at that position."

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