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Civil War-era Maryland law limiting contract could make it more difficult to hire the state’s next schools leader

State laws dating back to the 1860s are making the hunt for Maryland’s next state school superintendent more difficult because the state school board can’t appoint the next leader to a normal four-year term.

Superintendent Karen Salmon’s contract expires at the end of June, and the Maryland State Board of Education — which meets Tuesday — must choose a replacement by July.

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But because the state board was having difficulty picking a superintendent at the onset of the pandemic last spring, the board decided to delay the process and asked Salmon to stay an extra year after she had completed a four-year term. She got a $40,000 pay raise on July 1 and her salary rose to $275,000.

The board then restarted its national search this year hoping it would be able to offer the new leader a traditional contract, which by law is four years beginning on July 1. But in an opinion issued last month, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said the new contract must be only three years because the new superintendent will be completing what is actually Karen Salmon’s second four-year term.

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The opinion came in response to a January request from the president of the Maryland State Board of Education who wrote to Frosh arguing the state would have a harder time recruiting top candidates if the board couldn’t offer a full contract.

“Our executive search firm has alerted us to expect a highly competitive search environment,” Clarence Crawford wrote in asking for the opinion, “with potentially more than the usual six to seven concurrent state superintendent vacancies, as well as a number of local school district superintendent opportunities.

“Most of these state boards will be seeking superintendent candidates with very similar qualifications, and top candidates tend to favor longer employment terms, especially if it involves relocating to another state.”

He told Frosh the board might seek a legislative fix, but Frosh issued his opinion in late April after the legislature had adjourned. Opinions can take months to write, and the office only writes three or four a year.

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The opinion noted that since 1864 there has been a provision dictating the superintendent’s term as four years. While the length of term changed over time, Maryland had decided by 1916 that its superintendent would be appointed by a board, rather than the governor, to a four-year term.

Maryland has had two short-term state superintendents in the past decade. Bernie Sadusky was appointed as an interim superintendent for the year following the departure of Nancy Grasmick. And, then, Jack Smith finished the term of Lillian Lowery, who left after three years.

Crawford did not respond to an email asking for comment.

The state board hired a national executive recruiting firm, Greenwood/Asher to conduct the search, which the firm declined to discuss. The search process began in December with a series of forums to gather public input on what the board should consider in selecting a new superintendent. Most Maryland state superintendents hired in the past 30 years have come from within the state, with the exception of Lowery, a Delaware educator chosen in 2012 as a successor to Grasmick.

Whoever the state board of education chooses as the next leader faces several crucial decisions, including how to help schools get students back in classrooms full time and how to spend billions in new federal and state dollars.

The new superintendent will come just as $3 billion in federal aid will flow into Maryland school systems over the next several years to help schools pay for pandemic-related costs, including tutoring and other services students will need to catch up academically after a year of online learning. In addition, the new superintendent must navigate the implementation of historic education legislation that passed the Maryland General Assembly two years ago, called the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future and known as Kirwan.

“It will be critically important for the incoming superintendent to work closely with educators on the implementation of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which will bring historic increases in equity, opportunity, and funding to students in every neighborhood in our state, while simultaneously navigating the safe reopening of school buildings and recovery for students, educators, and communities after a historic pandemic,” said Cheryl Bost, head of the Maryland State Education Association, a union representing the state’s teachers.

The president of the association representing Maryland’s 24 local superintendents agreed that the new superintendent will face two immediate tasks.

Not only “understanding and navigating the ramifications of a pandemic, but understanding the implications and ramifications of a Kirwan blueprint. Those two things are loaded,” said Kelly Griffith, who is also Talbot County superintendent.

Addressing the teacher shortage also will be a high priority in Maryland, Griffith said.

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