Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston looked out this week at 700 elementary students spread out on their school's lawn to celebrate the groundbreaking for a long-awaited new wing.
The ceremony was like dozens before it, but for Hairston the event took him full circle. He told the children that he had been there a dozen years before, breaking ground for an earlier addition to Stoneleigh Elementary.
"Twelve years of my life has been devoted to Baltimore County," the departing superintendent said later in an interview. "You can't walk away without some fondness."
In neighboring Howard County, Superintendent Sydney Cousin spent much of his week meeting with administrators as he plans to hand over the district to a successor.
Friday is the last day of school not just for the students in Baltimore and Howard counties, but also for their leaders. Hairston and Cousin, who will be leaving two of the region's largest school districts on July 1, are retiring, and new leaders are taking their place. Dallas Dance, who oversaw middle schools in Houston, will take over in Baltimore County, and Renee Foose, the chief academic officer in Baltimore County, will become Howard's new superintendent.
Hairston and Cousin have navigated through difficulties as they presided over growing school districts.
Hairston, who had a 43-year career in education, said he is proud that he was able to maintain student achievement while the student population grew more diverse, as minority parents moved to the county from the city for better schools.
But in the past two years, some of his decisions have been questioned by the community and legislators. He backed off a decision to institute an unpopular online grading system but held firm on reducing teaching positions at the high schools.
Cousin said he is proud that Howard's schools have consistently ranked among the best in the state and that the system has an effective staff. But he also has worked with a school board that at times has been beset by personality clashes and infighting.
"The most important thing to me is to make sure that every kid succeeds in the school system and to use our resources, financial and personnel-wise, to achieve that goal," Cousin said.
At Stoneleigh Elementary near Towson, Hairston talked about the community's commitment to public education.
"I would like to come back one day ... to marvel at what you are able to do," he said to the students.
Stoneleigh's building will be shut down so that the work can be completed in a year. During the year, students will be bused to the former Carver Center for the Arts, which is moving into a new building.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz praised Hairston's tenure and said that by helping to get the addition built at Stoneleigh, "he is sowing seeds" for the future.
Hairston said most of his job after Friday will involve administrative duties and helping Dance in his transition. He described superintendents as relay runners who have to hand off the baton to the next person.
For his part, Cousin said he has tried to pace himself in his final days. He was diagnosed with lymphoma last year but has said his decision to retire was made before he began experiencing health problems.
The Howard County school system hired Cousin as director of school construction and planning in 1987. He became deputy superintendent and chief operating officer before leaving the school system in 2003 to take an associate superintendent position in Washington. He was named Howard superintendent in 2004.
Since 1988, Howard County has opened a number of facilities, including 28 new schools. Meanwhile, the school board has had problems. Last year, the county board voted to request that the state school board oust one of its members, Allen Dyer. The case is being heard by an administrative law judge.
"Let me put it this way, they support me and they always have," Cousin said of the school board. "My interest is always with kids. But the board has other interests they need to address, and the main thing they need to address is policy."
Cousin said he plans to take a year off to improve his health and spend more time with his family. Afterward, he will consider teaching history at a local college. In 1967, he began his education career as a history teacher at Lombard Junior High in Baltimore.
Chaun Hightower, president of the Howard County Council of PTAs, said the council honored Cousin on Monday.
"Every meeting I had with him, he was very, very sincerely concerned about family involvement," Hightower said. "He felt the PTA played an important role in the school system, and he treated us as partners."