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Dance resignation leaves his school initiatives in question

Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance’s tenure has been marked by fast-paced change. These are his most popular initiatives, ones that teachers, parents and lawmakers say they would like to see continued under the next superintendent. (Ulysses Muñoz and Liz Bowie / Baltimore Sun)

In his five years as Baltimore County schools superintendent, Dallas Dance has been a forceful, energetic — and sometimes controversial — presence in a diverse suburban district known both for its outstanding and struggling schools.

His abrupt resignation last week leaves open the possibility that many of his initiatives — some of them just recently launched — could be delayed or dropped under an interim superintendent to be hired in the next two months.

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Some school leaders, parents and legislators praised Dance's communication skills and political savvy — particularly his relationships with the county executive and lawmakers who supported his funding requests. They want the next leader of the school system to nurture and build on those important connections.

Others are skeptical of some of his initiatives — particularly a seven-year, $205 million plan to provide a laptop computer to every elementary- and middle-school student in the county. Some want that program dialed back.

And some parents and teachers spoke of emerging problems, including in classroom discipline, that need to be addressed soon.

Dance, 36, announced Tuesday that he will step down at the end of June, leaving the county school board little time to find an interim superintendent to take over on July 1. The board plans to hire an interim superintendent to serve for at least one year while members look for a long-term successor.

The Baltimore County school district is among the state's largest, with 112,000 students and a $1.4 billion budget. Dance signed a four-year contract last year at $287,000 per year.

Dance's tenure has been marked by ambitious changes that were enacted quickly — in some cases with uneven results. Teachers rebelled in 2013 when a new elementary school curriculum was introduced through on an online platform that was difficult to access. The curriculum, which was being written, was put into teachers hands just weeks before they were expected to start teaching it.

A new grading policy introduced this school year that puts less weight on behavior and homework drew criticism from parents and mixed reviews from teachers.

Abby Beytin, president of the county teachers union, said teachers would like "some down time from change upon change upon change."

"We would like changes to be kept at a minimum for now," she said. "Teachers need time to learn the things in front of them and to perfect that."

But Dance's fast-paced decision-making was praised by others, who say he inherited a system that wasn't keeping up with the times and began forcing needed changes. County Council Chairman Tom Quirk said he hopes the next superintendent has the same zest for innovation.

"I think Dallas Dance really tried to push for a lot of innovation and new programs," the Catonsville Democrat said. "We need to continue that to stay competitive and, if anything, notch it up because we live in a world of competition. … We have to do the best we can."

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz hopes the next superintendent brings new ideas for school curriculum and programs. He spoke of Dance's technology initiative, his addition of Spanish-language instruction in elementary schools, and his establishment of an "early college high school" set to open this fall at Woodlawn, that will allow students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree in four years.

"These types of programs require creativity," Kamenetz said. "I hope that the next superintendent continues to carry these concepts forward."

The most popular initiatives included the elementary-level foreign language instruction and new magnet programs in middle and high schools that give students choices for studying subjects that interest them. Legislators, parents and teachers said they wanted those efforts continued or expanded.

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Dance also introduced cultural competency training for staff to deepen their understanding of the backgrounds, life experiences and attitudes of black, Hispanic and other minority students, in hopes of reducing inequity in the way those students were treated.

While there are about an equal number of white and black students in the county, the Hispanic and Asian populations have grown rapidly. White students are now in the minority.

The training started three years ago with the school board. Principals and teachers will begin later this year. The effort has been applauded by teachers, parents and board members.

"If we are to continue to move forward as a school district, we must continue the equity training for all school employees," said Susan Kleinsasser, an elementary school teacher.

Yara Cheikh, a parent advocate, agreed.

"I think we need a superintendent that is committed to diversity in all forms in our county, but also recognizes the value of our teachers and will work toward creating a environment of respect for teacher and students," she said. "Frankly, we need as a county to value our teachers more than we have."

Emory Young, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County, said he wants a superintendent "who has a vision and a plan, and has the ability to communicate that effectively."

"The biggest thing is going to be someone with experience leading a system of our size and diverse population," Young said.

The community is deeply divided on the laptop initiative. Many parents have spoken against it during school board meetings.

Parents who have limited their children's screen time at home say they are particularly concerned about the length of time young students are spending on their devices during the school day. They want the school system to show that the impact of the initiative is more positive than negative.

"We just have to make sure that we monitor the amount of time that students are on [devices]," Young said. "We have to look at the safety and health concerns. There's been a lot of discussion of how much time is too much time."

Beytin, the union president, said teachers have had mixed reactions to the initiative. While some teachers have embraced it, others feel the money would be better spent on reducing class sizes and addressing other issues. The union never took an official position on it.

"To go back to say we're going to take away all the devices from kids would be very, very difficult," Beytin said. "I don't know that it is something that can be undone at this point."

County Councilman Julian Jones said he's hoping for someone in the same vein as Dance: energetic, creative, enthusiastic about the use of technology in the classroom.

Some teachers and parents have expressed concern that the county's emphasis on reducing suspensions has created an environment that is too lenient for misbehaving students.

Beytin said the approach to discipline needs to be well thought out.

"Discipline is so problematic in the schools," she said. "There are certain schools, if you go into those school, we have kids roaming the halls and no one is holding them accountable."

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When a previous school board was searching for a superintendent five years ago, one of its highest priorities was hiring someone who would be a good communicator.

David Uhlfelder, the only current school board member who was part of that search, said Dance's greatest accomplishment was developing relationships with Kamenetz, County Council members and legislators. The value of those connections can be seen in the funding increases the school system got nearly every year, he said.

"I think the ability to get along with our legislators and our county executive, whoever that may be in the future, is imperative," Uhlfelder said.

County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins said Dance had designated employees in his office who responded to concerns from council members and held quarterly meetings with the council.

"I want someone who makes themselves available to the County Council," the Middle River Democrat said.

Kamenetz, working with Dance, has designated more than $1 billion for school construction and renovations over a period of years. All schools are expected to be air-conditioned in the near future.

Kamenetz, a Democrat who has been considering a run for governor in 2018, said he hopes that the next superintendent "will be an individual who values the great working relationship between the school system and the county. If you look at some other counties across the state, there seems to be a lot of conflict between the government side and the school side."

The close relationship between the politicians and the school leaders could be important if the school system attempts to create more integrated schools in the future, school board member Marisol Johnson said.

The school board will have to decide in the coming weeks whether to hire an interim superintendent for one year or two.

The county will be switching next year from an appointed school board to a mostly elected board. Seven members will be elected that November, and four more will be appointed by the governor.

Given the potential that most of the board will turn over, some argue it would be best if an interim superintendent stays for two years, allowing the new board to choose the permanent superintendent. Others argue that two years is too long to have an interim.

State law requires superintendents to serve terms that begin on July 1 and end June 30, so if the new board makes the choice, a permanent replacement could not take the job until July 1, 2019.

County Councilman David Marks has an idea for who should serve as interim superintendent: Nancy Grasmick. She was state superintendent for 20 years before retiring in 2011.

"That's the type of person I would be looking for," the Perry Hall Republican said. "Someone who has impeccable integrity and credentials, who has roots in Baltimore County and who would basically be a good steward of our school system for the next 17 months."

Marks said he's mentioned Grasmick's name to a few school board members.

Grasmick, a county resident who worked in the school district as a teacher, principal and associate superintendent before becoming state superintendent, said she has not been approached by anyone on the board but has been contacted by people who want her to consider the job.

She hasn't ruled out the idea.

"I have a certain place in my heart for Baltimore County," she said. "I was there for 28 years."

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