With Hairston's departure, rethinking school oversight in Balto. Co.

After nearly a dozen years at the helm of Baltimore County Public Schools, Joe A. Hairston has decided to retire from his post after the end of the current school year. It was the right decision and ensures that the superintendent will be remembered more for his educational achievements and less for the controversies of the last two years.

Few current Baltimore County public school students have gone to school on a day when Mr. Hairston was not leading the system, encouraging high achievement but also raising the standards for less-successful schools to bridge the disparity gap. As we wrote when his contract was last renewed, in 2008, he has accomplished much in his leadership of a large, diverse system — from insisting that advanced placement courses be available at all high schools to graduating African-American male students at rates well above the national average. When Mr. Hairston took office, the percentage of Baltimore County students who received free and reduced-price meals (an indication of the district's poverty rate) was lower than the statewide average. Now it's higher, yet Baltimore County's standardized test scores have kept pace with statewide improvements during Mr. Hairston's tenure, a notable achievement.

In the last few years, however, some of his conduct has been troubling, leading the community to demand more responsiveness and accountability from both its superintendent and board of education. In a series of poorly received decisions, Mr. Hairston has appeared to act without much regard to community input or the wishes of elected leaders. Such behavior might be lauded as heroic independence had it involved a superintendent standing up for his students or important educational values, but often the public's impression was of an insulated, arrogant bureaucrat acting according to his own interests.

Mr. Hairston insisted that high school teaching positions be cut but central office administrators added. He ordered that the system use a time-consuming, proprietary grading system developed by his top deputy, who could eventually have profited from its use in other districts. He let relatively minor matters balloon into fiascos (the decision to cancel PTA craft fairs and similar fundraisers that involved leasing of school property to third-party vendors, for example). It all seemed to share a common theme: lack of school board oversight. Too often, it appeared that the school board was working for Mr. Hairston rather than the other way around.

That caused many in the county to question whether the current system of selecting school board members, all of whom are appointed by the governor, is the wisest practice. Might the board be more responsive to public concerns if some members were chosen by county voters, or even the county executive, rather than someone in Annapolis?

The idea of a hybrid board with both elected and appointed members has merit, but it's not without pitfalls, including the problem of how best to ensure adequate minority representation in a school system with such a diverse student population. That may explain why a 12-member legislative task force charged with advising the Maryland General Assembly on how to change the county's school board selection process last week decided to make no recommendation at all.

Thus, given that the school board reform movement was spurred by discontent with a superintendent who is now stepping down (after the board finally put its foot down and decided not to renew his contract, incidentally), and given that the public has not coalesced behind a new selection process, this is probably not the time for the legislature to act.

That's not to suggest that Baltimore County ought to be satisfied with the status quo, but taking action now, and without a public consensus, might only serve to distract from the important business of picking the county's next schools superintendent. Is having a relatively small group of delegates and senators make a decision in the crush of a 90-day legislative session really the best way to handle such an important and sensitive question?

These are difficult issues, and there is no one school board selection model that works for all jurisdictions. Howard County Executive Ken Ulman has been pushing for a hybrid board, too, but last week mounting community opposition caused it to be withdrawn from consideration. The measure now appears dead for 2012, despite being vetted by a commission and having Mr. Ulman standing behind it. By contrast, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has put little in the way of skin in the game, voicing only his misgivings about electing members.

Those unhappy with Mr. Hairston's performance of late may not be satisfied by any tabling of the matter, even if only for a year. But at least they can be assured a message has clearly been delivered to the current school board and governor that Baltimore County residents expect more than rubber-stamp oversight of the next superintendent. That will hold true whether members are elected, appointed or selected through some combination of the two. Better now to wait and see whether the problem was really the process by which board members are selected or a superintendent who had lost his way.

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